Prosecutors in Kyrgyzstan have filed a lawsuit to seek the closure of independent news site Kloop over what they say is its overly critical stance on government policies. The outlet’s reporting is leading to an increase in “socio-psychological tension” and could deepen the likelihood of suicide and “sexual deviancy,” the prosecutors have argued.
The suit, which was filed on August 22 but only came to light this week, is based on the analysis of more than a dozen items of reporting found to reflect content about the authorities of a "purely negative character.”
The case marks another turn in the assault on media freedoms under the rule of President Sadyr Japarov, who came to power following a season of turbulent street unrest in October 2020. Kloop remains one of only a few outlets in Kyrgyzstan to continue engaging in aggressive investigative reporting, including into the financial interests of officials in Japarov’s orbit.
While efforts to neuter media organizations like the local affiliate of U.S.-funded broadcaster RFE/RL have been built on allegations of specific acts of rule-breaking, the case against Kloop rests on far vaguer ground.
In making their argument, prosecutors cite psychiatric evaluations claiming that articles produced by the news website are sowing distrust in the country's leadership and, as a result, producing political instability.
By generating "fear, anxiety, despair and panic" among the public, outlets like Kloop are causing Kyrgyz citizens to lose hope in their future, causing them to succumb to mental disorders, sexually abnormal behavior, drug addiction and suicide, prosecutors say.
Another strand of the case against Kloop is that it is undermining Kyrgyzstan’s relations with Russia. According to the testimony of unnamed advisors cited by prosecutors, the website at times has conveyed content arguing the "inferiority of Kyrgyz citizens as compared with the Russian people,” while at the same time producing articles intended to pour scorn on Russians.
In one more ominous line of attack, prosecutors maintain that Kloop’s coverage of unrest on the border with Tajikistan indicated that the outlet was serving the interests of the latter country.
Kloop’s bureaucratic and financial structure is likewise coming under scrutiny. Prosecutors maintain that as a public foundation and non-profit organization, Kloop does not have the authorization to engage in journalism. Officials argue that entities are only permitted to carry out journalistic activities once they have been registered formally as a mass media outlet, but that Kloop has failed to do this. Kloop’s lawyers have rejected this line of reasoning and say that they are acting within the law.
Prosecutors have said that in its tax return for 2021, Kloop indicated that it received more than 25 million som (around $300,000 at the time) in the form of a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy, or NED. The NED’s own financial reporting indicated payments of twice that amount, pointing to a possible concealment of funds, prosecutors said.
Kloop editor-in-chief Anna Kapushenko told Eurasianet that she was taken aback by the lawsuit and its wording. She described this legal assault as a fresh attempt by the authorities to put pressure on outlets that “ask questions and demand transparency.”
The nature of the lawsuit shows that the authorities are changing tack, Kapushenko said. The form of the legal complaint makes it evident that the government no longer feels like it needs to hide behind allegations of criminal acts to initiate prosecutions, she said.
“This is a dangerous trend because we see pressure intensifying. Earlier, we saw the authorities trying to create cases on the basis of existing laws. Here we see them leaving the legal field altogether,” she said.
Kapushenko speculated that the lawsuit may have been triggered by a recent investigation by her website into how the children of Japarov and his long-time close ally, the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, have invested into building a soccer training academy on government-owned land in the southern Jalalabad region. Figures close to a disgraced, deposed former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, are also alleged by Kloop to be involved in the project.
The Committee to Protect Journalists on August 28 pressed the Kyrgyz authorities to withdraw their petition with the courts to seek Kloop’s closure.
“Kyrgyz authorities’ application to shutter Kloop is an outrageous and deeply cynical attempt to stifle some of Kyrgyzstan’s most probing investigative journalism, including investigations of alleged corruption involving leading state officials,” Carlos Martínez de la Serna, CPJ’s program director, said in a statement. “Authorities should immediately withdraw this application and stop their campaign of pressure against the independent press.”
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.