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By Tigran Sargsyan, legal and policy intern

For years, Kyrgyzstan was considered the only country that was moving toward democratization in Central Asia as its civil society has mobilized each time to resist the oppression of tyrants. In 2005, during the bloodless Tulip Revolution, the Kyrgyz managed to achieve the resignation of President Askar Akayev, who had led the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union for 14 years. The leader of the opposition, who came to power after the revolution, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, soon showed an authoritarian character in governing the country, which, along with several corruption scandals, led to a nationwide uprising in 2010. 

Unfortunately, the events that later became known as the Melon Revolution were marred by interethnic clashes in the south of Kyrgyzstan and claimed the lives of thousands of people.

Despite the resistance of President Bakiyev and an attempt to suppress the revolution by force, the opposition prevailed and formed the Provisional Government of Kyrgyzstan, which assumed the functions of a democratic governing body until early elections were held. At the helm was Roza Otunbayeva, the first female president in Central Asia and throughout the entire post-Soviet space. The revolution was followed by democratic reforms to limit presidential power, and the successful 2010 referendum transformed Kyrgyzstan into a parliamentary republic. 

Despite the 2010 revolution, a new constitution was introduced in Kyrgyzstan aimed at decentralizing power and strengthening the parliamentary system. The peaceful transition of power was practiced. The country continued to show signs of a competitive authoritarian regime with manipulation of elections, restrictions on media freedom, and political pressure on the opposition. 

A decade later, the opposition brought charges of election fraud against then-president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who was compromised by corruption scandals. And so began the Third Kyrgyz Revolution Within a week, the protesters managed to force the government’s resignation and hold new elections. The main beneficiary of this revolution was Sadyr Japarov, the main rival of President Jeenbekov, who was released from prison by protesters. Soon after, he became acting head of state and won the presidential elections, where he abused state financial resources to his party’s benefit. Parallel to the presidential elections, Japarov held a referendum on the transition to a presidential form for the republic. Having given himself broad presidential powers, the right-wing populist president began a crusade against civil society and freedom of speech, establishing a fully authoritarian regime in Kyrgyzstan.

Japarov’s authoritarian ways continued: in 2021, he signed a law to limit the spread of so-called “false information.” The law allows government agencies to shut down or block websites that publish information determined by the government to be “false” or “misleading.” The criteria for determining what constitutes false information raised concerns that the government would use the law to censor dissenting opinions and stifle free journalism. As feared, the law has become a new tool to suppress dissent. 

The suppression gets worse. On April 2, Japarov signed a law similar to Russia’s “foreign agents” legislation, which requires nonprofit organizations, including media organizations, that receive foreign funding to register as “foreign representatives” and subjects them to strict financial reporting and extensive government oversight.

The move drew criticism from international organizations and foreign diplomats as another major step toward authoritarianism. The law’s broad scope and vague terminology surrounding political activity raise serious concerns that officials could use it to suppress dissent, restrict the activities of NGOs and independent media, and further deteriorate the already fragile state of the press, which is under constant government pressure in Kyrgyzstan. 

The attempt to shut down Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of Radio Liberty, occurred against the backdrop of the publication of material about the border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September 2022. The Ministry of Culture, Information, Sports and Youth Policy of Kyrgyzstan filed a lawsuit to terminate the media organization, citing the fact that one of its videos contains “elements of hate speech” and “unconfirmed information.” In October 2022, the ministry blocked access to Azattyk’s websites and froze the organization’s accounts. In December of that year, it was announced that the restrictions would be extended indefinitely. The international community saw the move as a crackdown on independent media and a further strengthening of authoritarianism under Japarov’s regime. Amnesty International also condemned Azattyk’s closure calling it a serious blow to freedom of speech in the country. 

The closure of another media outlet, Kloop Media, was decided by a court ruling in Bishkek on Feb. 9, which ordered the liquidation of the independent publication’s legal entity. Prosecutors accused Kloop of negatively impacting the public’s mental health through its reporting, which they said included “harsh criticism” of the government. The closure of such an important and respected media outlet, founded in 2007 and recognized for its investigative journalism, was yet another significant blow to press freedom in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia. 

Another major outlet, Temirov Live, became a target of the government earlier this year. Amid searches and arrests that began on Jan. 15, security forces conducted a series of raids on the offices and homes of Temirov Live employees, arresting 11 people on charges of inciting mass riots. The charges of incitement to riot, which led to the arrest of Temirov Live journalists, highlight the government’s use of legislation as a tool to silence undesirable media. 

Journalists also revealed growing nepotism: over the past year, more than six of Japarov’s relatives received government positions. The investigation into using budget funds to purchase luxury goods by members of the president’s family also caused a stir.  

Since Japarov’s rise to power, the suppression of democratic freedoms and freedom of speech has intensified, reflecting the entrenched authoritarian nature of the regime. The implementation of laws targeting so-called “false information” and “foreign agents,” coupled with efforts to suppress independent media like Azattyk and Kloop, highlight the ongoing authoritarian practices in a country that has long been devoid of democratic governance. These actions further erode the already limited space for free press and civil liberties, solidifying the fully authoritarian Japarov regime in Kyrgyzstan.

Tigran Sargsyan is a legal and policy intern with the Human Rights Foundation (HRF).