When the team behind the consumer rights program “Not Sugar” arrived at Ji Xiang Chinese Cafe in central Bishkek in March, they were met with force.
After presenting their credentials, they tried to enter the restaurant, only to be beaten back by the hostess, who appeared not to understand Kyrgyz, Russian, or English.
As they made their way toward the kitchen, she tried to break the camera, tearing at the journalist's vest and shirt.
When the hostess’ daughter arrived on the scene, she joined in the fray, grabbing the camera and trying to smash it on the floor, before brandishing a metal coat rack.
Only when the police finally arrived was the camera crew able to enter the kitchen.
There, they found cockroaches, rust, and spilled patches of congealed oils. Staff attempted to turn off the lights so that the journalists would be unable to film. Police documented the scene as evidence of health and safety violations.
“Not Sugar” began airing online in 2014 before moving to television.
In the inaugural show, then-presenter Erulan Kokulov armed himself with a camera while stalking the aisles of a local supermarket, checking whether products on offer fell in line with the country’s consumer and food hygiene regulations.
It resonated with viewers and unnerved businesses: The first episode ended with the film crew being kicked off the supermarket’s premises, the first of many ejections.
Each episode of the show, which is now back on YouTube, starts by quoting an article from Kyrgyzstan’s media freedom law: “A journalist's access to information in the public interest, affecting the rights, freedoms and legitimate interests of citizens, cannot be curtailed.”
With its focus on the plight of ordinary consumers, “Not Sugar” has become a hit in Kyrgyzstan. The show has over 450,000 YouTube subscribers, plus 123,000 on Instagram and 135,000 on TikTok. On YouTube alone, their 230 episodes have been viewed more than 40 million times. Expressions of thanks and support flood the comments section.
Kokulov, who hosted the program until 2021, says he first came up with the idea back in 2008. He has since become a lawmaker on the back of the show’s success and has handed it on to colleagues. But 13 years ago, he was in a much lonelier place.
“The customer was considered a nobody,” he told Eurasianet. “If you bought an out-of-date product, you couldn't return it because it was considered shameful.
In 2011, he found new resolve after a shop assistant reduced his mother to tears in a store in central Bishkek. The young shop assistant had hurled obscenities at her while she had been shopping for glasses, ultimately refusing to take her money.
Kokulov later visited the shop himself but was given no answers as to the shop assistant’s behavior.
So he called up several journalist friends, who arrived at the shop to film the encounter. Confronted by a camera, the shop assistant quickly apologized.
“I thought, how many mothers are out there, just like mine? How many children cannot protect their parents’ rights? I decided to shoot more videos on my phone.”
Kokulov continued filming clips on his phone until 2018, when the show was finally picked up by a local channel. It appeared on Kyrgyz television screens for a year before the station was taken off air due to an unrelated political struggle.
Expired food exported from Russia
Not everyone was thrilled with the show’s premise. Some viewers were confused or complained that it showed Kyrgyzstan in a bad light.
Friends and family members asked, “el emne deit” – or “what will people say?” – and suggested Kokulov had brought shame on the family.
After the station closed in 2019, Kokulov continued his work on YouTube but struggled financially.
“I spent more on the project than I could earn. It was a very difficult period in my life,” he told Eurasianet. He halted the project on several occasions, before eventually reviving it.
“Some who offered to support me wanted me to do certain things in return, but I couldn’t dirty the project’s name. I sold my car to support the film crew.”
Earnings slowly improved, and so did the public’s attitude toward the show. Security guards stopped ejecting him when they saw him, wary of the camera. People began to thank Kokulov for his work.
In one episode, the team exposed a trader selling expired children’s food from a stall in Bishkek’s second-largest market. Ignored by food safety officials, his company had made money importing expired food from Russia and selling it in Kyrgyzstan.
“People began to understand that it was an acceptable thing to come back to a store and demand a refund if a product was out of date, and that there’s nothing shameful about that,” Kokulov told Eurasianet.
Kyrgyzstan’s food hygiene problem is compounded by the country’s existing legislation, which requires safety inspectors to notify shop owners of their visit in advance.
Vladimir Pluzhnik, a lawyer and director of the Vigens legal center in Bishkek, said that consumer rights in Kyrgyzstan remain desperately neglected.
“The current law is very, very old, in every sense of the word. There’s not even anything we can take from there and improve. It’s like having a very old horse: You can put a beautiful new harness on it and drive it forward with all your might, but in the end that horse is only going to crawl forward. We have needed a new law for the past 20 years.”
The change saw Kokulov give up presenting duties, handing over the show to Umar Dadanov.
Major businesses now advertise with the channel; viewers can also donate money online.
Kokulov claims that he has been approached by fellow lawmakers and even highly placed officials in the executive branch enticing him to either prevent episodes from surfacing or looking to target rivals in business and politics.
To protect editorial independence, he claims he has rebuffed offers reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. He did not offer proof.
The team’s cameras are still as quick to spot mice, cockroaches and rude staff.
Despite most episodes garnering a million views on YouTube, new presenter Dadanov says Not Sugar still faces down serious threats.
In April, Dadanov and his team investigated a slaughterhouse that residents had accused of selling carrion.
Inside, some 20 people surrounded the journalists, took their cameras, phones and flash drives, and set dogs on them.
Pre-trial proceedings in the case are underway.
“It doesn’t matter who owns the establishment, you can’t strike a deal with us: If there are health and safety violations, we’ll show them,” Dadanov said. “If there are no violations, then we’ll show that too.”
Aigerim Turgunbaeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.