Kyrgyzstan: Stop the attacks on RFE/RL Kyrgyz service

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Members of the international Civic Solidarity Platform condemn attacks on Radio Azattyk (“Radio Liberty”), the Kyrgyz service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

“We protect freedom of speech!” A protest meeting in support of Azattyk in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Radio Azattyk

We urge Kyrgyzstan’s authorities to stop blocking Azattyk’s websites azattyk.org and rus.azattyk.org, to reinstate transmission of its radio shows and to unfreeze Azattyk’s bank accounts in the country.

Azattyk’s first Kyrgyz-language report aired from Munich on 18 March 1953, less than two weeks after the death of Stalin. The word “azattyk” is Kyrgyz for liberty, or freedom. RFE/RL will be celebrating Azattyk’s 70th anniversary in March 2023. It would be a sad testament to current realities in Kyrgyzstan and a blow to its reputation as a striving, independent democracy if Azattyk’s website is still blocked and its bank accounts still frozen on that day.

Azattyk has come under pressure in Kyrgyzstan on several previous occasions, not at least under the repressive regime of Kurmanbek Bakiev before the 2010 April Revolution. This time, problems began in earnest on October 2022, when a group of people protested outside Azattyk’s offices in Bishkek, demanding the closure of independent media channels, including Azattyk, Kaktus Media and the popular, well-respected Kyrgyz news outlet Kloop.

Ten days later, Kyrgyzstan’s National Television/Radio Broadcasting Corporation stopped transmitting Azattyk radio shows, followed by a decision by the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy to block the Azattyk website under a controversial and widely criticized law on the protection against ‘”false” information, adopted in summer 2021.

The reason cited by authorities was the refusal by RFE/RL to remove a video on an affiliated Russian-language TV channel, Nastoyashee Vremya (“Current Time”) in September 2022 about the heavy fighting on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, entitled “Heavy fighting on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan”.

The video report included comments by Kamchybek Tashiev, head of the State Committee for National Security (GKNB).

By the end of the month, Azattyk’s bank account in Demir Bank was blocked at the state security service’s request, absurdly citing “Countermeasures against the financing of terrorist activities and legalization (laundering) of criminal proceeds”.

After Azattyk filed a formal, administrative complaint, their office received a message that the blocking of their bank account was connected to investigations in a criminal case. In a Kafkaesque twist, however, the actual materials of the criminal case are cited as classified.

On December 22, 2022, a judge known for several controversial political rulings in favour of the authorities dismissed a complaint against the security services regarding the blocking of Azattyk’s bank accounts.

On December 25, 2022, the Ministry of Culture, Information, Sport, And Youth Policy extended the blockage of Azattyk’s website.

Last month, over 100 Kyrgyz artists and cultural figures, scientists, activists and journalists appealed to President Sadyr Japarov to end the repression. We, the members of the Civic Solidarity Platform, also call on Kyrgyzstan’s authorities to order the removal of all restrictions on Azattyk’s important journalistic activities in the country. We believe that the strong tradition of an independent media in Kyrgyzstan has always set it apart from more authoritarian countries in the region.

Indeed, it is indicative that the September 2022 conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was covered in an objective manner by local journalists on the Kyrgyz side, whereas independent news outlets in Tajikistan face severe restrictions and state repression.

Kyrgyz authorities should treat the country’s media with pride and as a strength, and not seek to reverse democratic developments that have been taking place for decades, and for which ordinary Kyrgyz have often paid a high price.

Let Azattyk’s 70th anniversary be an occasion to show that “азаттык” – freedom – is still alive and well in Kyrgyzstan.

Signed:

Norwegian Helsinki Committee (Norway)

Crew Against Torture (Russia)

SOVA Center (Russia)

Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (Armenia)

International Partnership for Human Rights (Belgium)

Bir Duino (Kyrgyzstan)

Center for Development of Democracy and Human Rights (Russia)

Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (Kazakhstan)

Human Rights Centre ZMINA (Ukraine)

Swedish OSCE Network (Sweden)

Citizens’ Watch (Russia)

Public Verdict Foundation (Russia)

The Human Rights Center (Georgia)

Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia (Serbia)

Promo LEX (Moldova)

Macedonian Helsinki Committee (North Macedonia)

Legal Policy Research Centre (Kazakhstan)

KRF Public Alternative (Ukraine)

Human Rights Center “Viasna” (Belarus)

Belarusian Helsinki Committee (Belarus)

Austausch – For a European Civil Society e.V. (Germany)

Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Bulgaria)

Netherlands Helsinki Committee (Netherlands)

Public Association Dignity (Kazakhstan)

Crude Accountability (USA)

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (Poland)

Swiss Helsinki Committee (Switzerland)