Kyrgyzstan Investigates Journalist for Reporting on Ethnic Tensions

Security services in Kyrgyzstan have initiated a criminal case for “inciting ethnic hatred” against a journalist who reported on the spread of online xenophobia.

On June 10, one day after that decision was announced, a court in the capital, Bishkek, ruled that Moscow-based ferghana.ru, the website where Ulugbek Babakulov had published the article that is now the object of investigation, should be banned.

In a statement on June 12, ferghana.ru described the charges leveled against it by Kyrgyz authorities as “politically motivated.”

“All our work is based on internationally accepted ethical principles,” the statement read. “We have never ‘stirred up ethnic strife,’ but only scrupulously and clearly recorded and described important social processes. We consider all accusations against us to be contrived and politically motivated.”

The article by Babakulov, entitled “People like animals: How Kyrgyz social media is ringing to the sound of vengeance against Sarts,” appeared on ferghana.ru on May 23 and listed instances of online users expressing aggressively intolerant views about the country’s sizable ethnic Uzbek community. The word “Sart,” a word used as a common racial slur against Uzbeks, was deployed ironically in the context of the headline.

Critics of the piece have accused the journalist of smearing the Kyrgyz people and drawing gross generalizations from isolated cases of xenophobic language online. Babakulov’s piece was given particular prominence at the end of May when the country’s main public television station ran a nine-minute report lining up a number of commentators to condemn it. In the report, the commentators dubbed Babakulov an “enemy of the nation” and suggested blocking ferghana.ru.

Babakulov has argued his intentions were exclusively to illustrate a real problem that he says the authorities are ignoring, or even tacitly exacerbating. The security services, meanwhile, accuse the writer of provocatively timing the piece for publication ahead of the anniversary of events in June 2010, when clashes broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in the south of the country.

“The cited examples of incitement and insults could become grounds for pushing people to illegal and antisocial actions,” the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, said in a statement.

That line of reasoning has been roundly condemned by media rights activists like the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Investigating Ulugbek Babakulov for inciting ethnic hatred because he criticized those who he said incited ethnic hatred is an outrage," CPJ Europe and Central Asia program coordinator Nina Ognianova said in statement. "Lawmakers and pro-government media have tried to smear Babakulov as a traitor and villain for warning about the dangers of nationalism. We call on Kyrgyzstan to cease harassing the journalist immediately and to restore access to his outlet."

Babakulov has called the criminal case against him an act of stupidity and that he is being made an example of what can happen to those that oppose or criticize the government. Also, falling back on nationalist messaging is becoming particularly acute in the run-up to the presidential election in October, he said.

“The authorities feel they cannot provide the Kyrgyz people with a satisfactory standard of life. That is why they are now trying to distract the population away from social and economic problems with slogans about the exceptionalism of a certain chosen ethnic group,” he said.

Babakulov has rejected allegations that his defiant posture is motivated by a desire to seek asylum in the West.

“I am almost 50. For 10 years I have been build myself a big homestead. I have done everything possible to ensure that my children and I, and other people, could live well in their own homeland — in Kyrgyzstan,” Babakulov said.

If the authorities decide to follow through with a prosecution against Babakulov on grounds of incitement to ethnic hatred, the journalist could potentially face up to seven years in jail.

Kyrgyzstan Investigates Journalist for Reporting on Ethnic Tensions

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