A lawyer in Kyrgyzstan is mounting a legal appeal with the Constitutional Chamber that she hopes could quash punitive libel lawsuits recently filed on behalf of President Almazbek Atambayev.
Klara Sooronkulova has argued that a law regulating the activities of the presidential office have been abused to persecute independent media and critics of the authorities.
One provision of the law in question enables the General Prosecutor’s Office to initiate libel actions against anybody it perceives as denigrating the honor and dignity of the president. Another states that the president is a symbol of the people and power. Sooronkulova said she wishes the Constitutional Chamber to recognize both those provisions as unconstitutional and violations of freedom of speech.
The General Prosecutor’s Office has filed numerous lawsuits against news website Zanoza.kg and RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, as well as former MP and long-time Atambayev detractor Cholpon Dzhakupova on the grounds they had made allegedly libelous comments about the president.
Sooronkulova says that since 2010, when a new constitution was approved, the office of the presidency has been notably downgraded in importance and that Atambayev’s allies have been basing their assaults on media on legislation dating back to 2009.
“This provision was used to crush freedom of speech. All the punitive power of the state machine was directed toward free media and civil activists,” she said.
Sooronkulova said that the Constitutional Chamber has agreed to consider her petition, and that while that was happening, all outstanding libel lawsuits filed on behalf of the president had to be temporarily suspended.
The chamber’s decision has come as a surprise, Sooronkulova said.
“They did this despite clear pressure being applied to the courts by the presidential administration. In this instance, they managed to demonstrate persistence and adherence to principles,” said Sooronkulova, who is herself a former member of the Constitutional Chamber.
The lawyer is far from alone in worrying about the state of free speech in Kyrgyzstan. Freedom House issued a statement on May 2 expressing concern about the declining state of media freedoms in the country and dubbed the cases against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyzstan service and Zanoza.kg “politically motivated.”
“The government of Kyrgyzstan is directly attacking the very institutions necessary for the country’s democratic development. Freedom House urges the authorities of Kyrgyzstan to cease persecution of independent media and human rights defenders who express dissenting views,” Marc Behrendt, director for Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, said in a statement.