Agents from Kyrgyzstan’s security services mounted a raid on the offices of leading local news agency 24.kg on January 15 and interrogated senior management over claims that the outlet has been “propagandizing war.”
24.kg has said that the search of its premises began at 11 a.m. and that officers from the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, confiscated computers and mobile phones. The agency’s general director, Asel Otorbayeva, and senior editors Anton Lymar and Makhinur Niyazova were all questioned.
No information has been provided yet about what content has drawn the GKNB’s attention. As she was being led away for questioning, Niyazova speculated that the articles in question may have been about the war in Ukraine, but she did not specify which pieces in particular.
After being questioned, the 24.kg representatives said they have been registered as witnesses in an ongoing criminal investigation. They said that they had signed a statement of non-disclosure, which prevents them from commenting further on the situation.
The International Press Institute, a Vienna-based advocacy group, denounced the raid in a statement on Twitter.
“Searches at 24.kg are clear violation of privacy and media's right to protect sources. General Director Asel Otorbayeva, editors Anton Lymar and Makhinur Niyazova must be immediately released, politically motivated charges against the outlet must be dropped,” the IPI said.
24.kg was founded in 2006 by Otorbayeva, a former editor at the Vecherny Bishkek (Evening Bishkek) newspaper. It has since established itself as one of the country’s leading sources for news.
It has run into some trouble of late, however.
In September, Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor, which acts in effect as an enforcer for Kremlin diktats, ordered that access to the site be blocked over its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine.
This measure appears to have been prompted by coverage deemed to have an anti-Russian slant. One piece published in June cited political analysts who described Moscow as having “imperial ambitions” toward Central Asia. Earlier in the year, in April, another 24.kg article dwelled on the mechanics of Russian propaganda.
More recently, 24.kg has earned unwanted attention from Kyrgyz authorities, specifically over its coverage of the haphazard introduction of a modified national flag approved by parliament and the president late last year.
On January 24, the website reported, accurately, that a flag that had been hoisted on Bishkek’s main square on January 1 bore an incorrect design. The flag appears to have been produced as the result of human error. Although the reporting was correct, the head of the presidential administration, Kanybek Tumanbayev, nevertheless suggested that anybody spreading what he described as “false information” about the flag could face prosecution. He singled out 24.kg as an offender.
“Not only does such false information create discontent among many people, but now our Kazakh neighbors are discussing it too,“ he wrote on Facebook. “Those who use manipulation to whip up public anger must be held accountable within the law.”
Independent media have come under growing pressure from the authorities since President Sadyr Japarov came to power in October 2020.
In one lowlight from September, a Culture Ministry edict to block access to the Kloop news website came into effect. The motivation behind that move was an article published at the start of the month in which Kloop reported on allegations that a jailed opposition politician, Ravshan Jeenbekov, was being abused at his pre-detention facility.
In October 2022, the government ordered a two-month block on the website of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyk, after determining that the broadcaster had fallen foul of the fake information law by quoting Tajik officials speaking about a border conflict that had taken place the month before. The ban was later extended and lifted only in July following RFE/RL’s decision to cave to government demands and pull the offending material from its site.
Ayzirek Imanaliyeva is a journalist based in Bishkek.