Prickly by name, prickly by nature.
When the founders of one of Kyrgyzstan’s few truly punchy independent media outlets came to picking a name, they landed on something self-explanatory: Kaktus.
After sustaining one sting too many, the authorities are now looking to punish the website.
On February 1, prosecutors announced that they were initiating criminal proceedings against Kaktus on the unusual charge of “war propaganda.” The accusation comes in response to the outlet reprinting a report by a Tajik news website during a bout of border unrest late last month. Informing readers about the other country’s narrative on those events, Kyrgyz prosecutors say, is a criminal offense.
Kaktus founder Dina Maslova sees this case as little more than a pretext to crush her outlet, which is run by around 15 people out of a cramped office in central Bishkek.
“What is happening is pressure on freedom of speech and independent media. The authorities don’t know how to communicate, they are ill-prepared for criticism, they are worried about their ability to hold onto power and for their reputations,” Maslova told Eurasianet.
On February 3, the prosecutor’s office summoned the outlet’s employees for questioning. A day later, the website came under a DDoS attack, Maslova said. Somebody has also been trying to hack into the social media accounts of Kaktus and its staff, she said.
Media controlled and beholden to the government have also been enlisted to the mission. In a seemingly coordinated effort, the television stations OTRK, ElTR, and Piramida all ran reports on January 31 stating that Kaktus had published an article accusing Kyrgyz troops of initiating the border unrest that broke out on January 27.
This was a knowingly misleading allegation. What the website had actually done was to reproduce content from the privately owned Tajik news website Asia-Plus, something it did with the intent of showing what information the Tajik public was being provided.
“We are of the profound belief that there is also an information war going on, and in order to counter this, you need to clearly understand what actions the other side is taking in this war,” the website said in a statement on January 28, after quickly pulling the article in question.
That retraction and statement came on the heels of a small but loud protest rally outside the website’s premises. Another similarly sized gathering was held on February 9.
It was clear from those pickets that Kaktus is not the only problem outlet. Attendees held up placards also naming Kloop, a Bishkek-based website that has distinguished itself for numerous corruption exposés, and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, which has run copious material embarrassing to this and many previous governments.
“Our demand is that this criminal case [against Kaktus] be followed through to the end, because the reprint was an act of provocation and subversion,” Tursunbai Bakir uulu, a former MP, told the gathering.
While the crowd that formed outside the Kaktus offices on February 9 may have sought to claim it was acting on its own initiative, few are fooled. The Kyrgyz- and Russian-language signs that the picketers were holding up were in fact mostly composed of random and often incoherent words: “Sellouts they to us don’t close,” “Kloop politics,” “Kaktus information against.”
One besuited man attending the January 28 picket admitted when quizzed by journalists that he had not read the article that he claimed to be protesting. Later, fellow picketers began squabbling among themselves.
The people most likely to be discomfited by the work of Kaktus, which was founded in 2017 out of the ashes of another gadfly outlet, Zanoza (Splinter), are figures like President Sadyr Japarov and the head of the security services, Kamchybek Tashiyev, who are both routinely pilloried on the website’s pages.
Nurbek Sadykov, a lawyer for the Media Policy Institute, a media rights organization, is alarmed at the prosecutors’ unprecedented decision to level the “war propaganda” charge at journalists.
“Propaganda should be understood as the teaching or dissemination of knowledge and ideas that can lead to conflict. But informing citizens about what is happening on the territory of another state cannot be considered war propaganda,” Sadykov said. “When you study this situation, there is no way you can say that Kaktus employees were intent on inciting conflict.”
The offense envisions fines of up to around $1,200 and five years in prison.
Maslova said Kaktus is ready to fight, however.
“This is not just for Kaktus, but for the entire media market. Because every independent media outlet should defend itself, otherwise they are going to take them out one by one,” she told Eurasianet. “Never has pressure on independent media ever helped the authorities. It will not solve any social, economic, or geopolitical problems. It will only worsen [the government’s] reputation.”
As Maslova has suggested, the assault on media critical of the government is happening on multiple fronts.
On January 20, investigative journalist Bolot Temirov uploaded an 11-minute video report accusing the family of the head of the State Committee for National Security, Tashiyev, of enriching itself through the resale of fuel oil produced by a state-controlled refinery. Two days later, armed and masked police barged into Temirov's office claiming to be following up on a drugs tip.
Employees of Temirov Live, the YouTube channel run by the journalist, later alleged that they had for weeks been trailed by unknown people and subjected to blackmail campaigns. Footage of one young female employee engaged in sexual relations was uploaded to the internet.
And there are concerns the law is being modified to give scope for more pressure to be applied on the media. In December, the Interior Ministry proposed a change to anti-extremist legislation that envisions the shuttering of media outlets perceived to be engaging in the dissemination of extremist ideas. Critics of the proposal say that the terms of the legislation are so poorly articulated, however, that there is a danger it could in future be deployed against undesirable journalists.
“Without a clear definition of the concepts of extremism, ideology, and anti-constitutional conduct, the proposed bill could be used to clamp down on media criticizing officials,” the rights group Bir Duino wrote in a letter addressed to President Japarov.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.