Editor's Note: This story was originally published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and is republished with permission. The Kyiv Independent is a member center of OCCRP.
Kyrgyz authorities ordered the detention of 11 independent journalists and conducted searches of their homes on Tuesday. According to attorney Zamir Zhooshev, the journalists are now held in custody for 48 hours, before the court decides to release them or to extend the detention.
In the early morning on Tuesday, police searched the apartments of ten current and former employees of independent investigative newsroom Temirov Live in Kyrgyzstan, editor-in-chief Bolot Temirov told OCCRP.
Temirov is currently living in exile after he was stripped of Kyrgyz citizenship and deported from the country in 2022.
The searches were conducted as part of an investigation into alleged calls for mass riots at several different addresses in the country’s capital Bishkek and the provincial city of Tokmok, wrote editor-in chief Temirov on his Facebook page. Police raided the homes of the director of the media outlet and Temirov’s former wife, Mahabat Tazhibek kyzy, former Temirov Live journalists Aktilek Kaparov and Tynystan Asylbekov, and other employees currently or formerly connected to Temirov Live.
The Kyrgyz Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that a criminal case was opened at the end of December and an expert assessment had determined that “some publications included calls for mass riots.”
Most of the detained journalists have been taken by police to the Main Investigation Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, according to Bolot Temirov.
“In total, 10 people were detained and interrogated, and their homes were searched. They (the authorities) made a show out of this as if we were terrorists again. The same thing happened two years ago. Now the office is being searched and lawyers are not allowed in,” said Temirov in an interview with OCCRP.
No other information is available at present.
On Monday, the State Committee of National Security, also known as the GKNB, conducted a search in the office of Kyrgyz news agency 24.kg. Following the search, security forces interrogated editors-in-chief Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar as well as general director Asel Otorbaeva.
The GKNB later confirmed it is investigating a criminal case involving alleged “war propaganda” and said that the managers of 24.kg are currently being treated as witnesses.
When she was being led out of the office by security officers, Niyazova told reporters that the search was related to a criminal case regarding an unspecified publication about the war in Ukraine.
Late Monday evening, the editors and general director of 24.kg were released.
Freedom of press in Kyrgyzstan
In recent years, Kyrgyz police and intelligence services have conducted searches in the offices and apartments of a number of independent journalists. In 2022 police searched the office of Temirov Live where officers said they found among Bolot Temirov’s things a small bag of hashish.
“They planted it!” Temirov shouted as he was taken out of the office.
An investigation by OCCRP detailed the smear campaign against Temirov and his team.
Authorities later charged Temirov with three more counts, including the charge that he falsified documents to obtain Kyrgyz citizenship. This effectively invalidated his passport, leading to the accusation that every time he traveled abroad he crossed the border illegally.
An Interior Ministry investigator ultimately revoked the journalist’s passport and in November 2022 he was deported from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, where he also holds citizenship.
In Reporters Without Borders’ 2023 World Press Freedom Index, Kyrgyzstan dropped from 72-nd to 122-nd place.
“Officials in recent years have tried to increase censorship and promulgate laws restricting press freedom,” the report states. “After an unsuccessful attempt in 2020, President Sadyr Japarov signed a law in 2021 to limit the spread of so-called ‘false information’ — a law that violates the Constitution, as well as international treaties and restricts press freedom.”
Earlier, international human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote in their reports for 2022 that freedom of expression is gradually being limited in Kyrgyzstan. According to HRW, “the authorities have taken a course to suppress critical voices,” citing pressure on the media, NGOs and the civil sector, as well as the detention of activists.
Apart from Bolot Temirov’s deportation, the most striking examples of this are the blocking of the website of the Kyrgyz RFE/RL service Azattyk and threatening to close it entirely, as well as the regular interrogations of journalists and bloggers.
In August 2023, the Bishkek Prosecutor’s Office filed a lawsuit against OCCRP’s Kyrgyz member center Kloop, asking the court to shut down the media outlet. According to prosecutors, the State Committee of National Security found that most of Kloop’s publications “are aimed at sharply criticizing the current government’s policies” and “discrediting representatives of state and municipal bodies.”
The Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture in September, 2023 decided to block Kloop’s Russian-language website and two months later, their Kyrgyz-language site as well. In response, Kloop filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Culture, asking the court to completely cancel the decisions of the Ministry of Culture and declare them invalid. Court proceedings are still ongoing.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov maintains, however, that “freedom of speech and the protection of human rights are our main priority.”
“There is no pressure (on the media),” Japarov told the Kyrgyz news site Kabar in 2022. “There are media outlets which try to avoid responsibility for their crimes, and then shout when they are arrested. It’s those that carry out pseudo-investigations, publish false information, discredit people, and stir up unrest in society. That is a violation of the law.”