As Kyrgyzstan’s presidents past and present prepare to collect giant libel suit winnings from journalists and activists convicted of defaming them, pro-government members of parliament are taking aim at another venue for self-expression — social media.
Both President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and his predecessor and ally Almazbek Atambayev have won big in recent court cases launched by the General Prosecutor with the aim of defending their “honor and reputation” against malicious claims.
Six people — two lawyers, two activists and two journalists — have been deemed guilty of wounding Atambayev’s “honor and dignity” in various articles. Another journalist is being forced to pay out for writing an unflattering article about Jeenbekov that was published during the latter’s presidential campaign. Regionally focussed outlet Fergana News reported that the fees owed to the two men by the seven defendants now collectively total $1 million.
Most recently, a representative for Atambaev said that property belonging to two of the unsuccessful defendants in the defamation suits will be put on auction to speed up payment of the fines.
Recent noises in the parliament suggest that this repressive trend is set to continue, possibly with a focus on online platforms.
On January 17, Ulan Primov, a member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK, complained that social networks are full of “unchecked information and various rumors that can harm national interests.” Primov called on the government to impose “restrictions on information in social networks."
Primov’s comments come at the same time as a party colleague, Dastan Bekeshev, is pushing for amendments to the civil code that would mandate minimum fines of 20,000 som ($290) for online content qualified as defamation.
The draft law also stipulates the format by which someone judged guilty of that offense should issue a public apology to their accuser. In the case of Facebook, for instance, this involves writing a public post — as opposed to one visible only to friends — that cannot be deleted quickly.
Officially, the purpose of Bekeshev’s law is “ the perfection of legal mechanisms” to defend the “honor, dignity and good name” of citizens.
But when the proposed legislation was first put forward for consideration in parliament on January 5, many social media users saw it as an implicit threat to their online freedoms.
In the wake of the outcry, the draft law disappeared from the parliament’s website. But Bekeshev issued an assurance they would return to the parliament, albeit with a few tweaks.
Bekeshev in some ways symbolizes Kyrgyzstan’s descent into petty authoritarianism over the last few years. A broadly popular MP known for championing important social concerns in the last session of parliament, he has become increasingly thin-skinned and litigious since abandoning his old party to join the SDPK in 2015.
Just last year, Bekeshev filed lawsuits against four separate media outlets for printing what he determined to be “false information”. The year before he opened proceedings against a local activist Mavlyan Askarbekov, who he deemed to have slandered him on Facebook. The court ruled in Bekeshev’s favour at the beginning of last year, setting a precedent by making Askarbekov the first defendant to lose a civil case connected to a post on social media. Askarbekov was forced to publish an apology of the sort Bekeshev is now looking to enshrine in law.
The growing fear is that Kyrgyzstan is on a fast track to emulating Kazakhstan, its more authoritarian neighbor to the north. There, a new media law passed in December demands that journalist seek permission in advance of publication from anybody whose "personal, family, medical, banking, commercial and other legally protected secrets" might feature in a blog or article. Adil Soz, a media watchdog, said this was "a law to protect corrupt officials."
In 2015, Bekeshev enlisted the assistance of the Interior Minisytry in his unsuccessful attempt to pursue an anonymous user he said had accused him of a crime in a comment underneath an article on a popular, opposition-minded news website. Shortly afterwards, Facebook user and businessman Atai Sadybakasov implied the young MP had wasted his potential by becoming “a torpedo for the government.”