Keeping Kyrgyz Journalism Afloat While the Island of Democracy Sinks

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By starvox

“One way or another, our journalists will do what matters.” 

By Aigerim Turgunbaeva and Sher Khashimov June 07, 2024 Keeping Kyrgyz Journalism Afloat While the Island of Democracy SinksCredit: Kyrgyz Presidential Administraion

On the chilly morning of January 15, 2024, Mahinur Niyazova, then editor-in-chief of one of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular independent media outlets,, was on her way to attend a parliament hearing about proposed new media regulations when she received a call from her editor Anton Lymar. The country’s notorious security services were at’s Bishkek office with a search warrant.

“I immediately called our lawyers to come to the office. Then I called my colleagues but no one picked up and I figured their phones have been seized,” recalled Niyazova on a phone call from Berlin in early May. “I hid my phone away before entering our office.” 

What Niyazova saw upon arrival was a sight that has been growing all too frequent in Kyrgyzstan, once considered an island of democracy in an authoritarian Central Asia – seized laptops and phones, the media outlet’s internal documents packed in boxes, and a team of hostile security service agents sealing the premises. Niyazova, Lymar, and the owner of, Asel Otorbaeva, were taken in for questioning, presumably over an article on the war in Ukraine that allegedly incited the citizens of Kyrgyzstan to go fight against Russia. The journalists were released that evening but were asked not to leave the country and were called in for another round of questioning on January 17.

“They kept our office sealed for three months. We tried to work remotely. And then on March 17 I learned on social media that [had] changed hands,” said Niyazova. 

Otorbaeva, whom Niyazova considered a friend, passed over control of the news agency to Almasbek Turdumamatov, a former National Bank bureaucrat and a press secretary to Kyrgyzstan’s former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. 

“Looking back, I think the January events were a hostile takeover and now is in the hands of someone closely affiliated with the government,” Niyazova told The Diplomat.

Despite Otorbaeva denying this interpretation of the events, Niyazova resigned from a few days later.  

January 2024 proved to be the latest salvo in the ongoing fight against press freedom in Kyrgyzstan. The day after the raid on the office, the authorities arrested 11 current and former journalists from Temirov Live, one of the country’s leading investigative outlets, which has repeatedly uncovered gross corruption on the part of government officials, on charges of inciting mass unrest. Although some of those detained in January have been released to house arrest, four remain in Detention Center 1 in the center of Bishkek as the group awaits trial; if convicted, they face years in prison.

Since its independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been the freest of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics. Unlike its regional neighbors, the country has had a string of genuinely democratic elections – as well as three revolutions – and boasts a robust civil society. Kyrgyzstan shares some commonalities with the media systems of other Central Asian countries: the authorities’ informal circulation of guidance to the press; the inability of independent media to receive services from the state and state-controlled media infrastructures; denying “disloyal” media access to advertising and information; the abuse of state monopolies and subsidies; little market support for self-sustaining media organizations; and government control over licensing, airwaves, and internet service providers. But Kyrgyzstan has also stood out for its more vibrant and innovative independent media space and a real hunger for investigative reporting.

“I think we’ve always had a strong civil society that had kept the government more responsive and accountable to its people, which in turn has led to more press freedom in the country,” explained Bolot Temirov, the founder of Temirov Live.

Temirov, who started as a journalist in 2006 almost by accident, joined in 2018, one of several similar outlets across Central Asia focused on fact-checking and countering mis- and disinformation in the region. But because of how much misinformation traditionally comes from government officials themselves, Temirov has witnessed the line between mere fact-checking and investigating government officials directly grow thinner over time. “2017-18 was the beginning of the investigative journalism boom in Kyrgyzstan,” he said. 

In 2018, a new foundation was created in the name of Ulanbek Egizbayev, a Radio Azattyk journalist who died that year, the goal of which was to support corruption investigations and annually award the best investigative journalism. That period saw Kloop, one of Kyrgyzstan’s most popular independent media outlets, join forces with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Radio Azattyk for a far-reaching investigation into widespread corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s customs service in December 2019.

Politklinika, an investigative media outlet launched in 2013 in the Kyrgyz language, a rare occurrence when most media outlets aiming for nationwide readership typically start with a Russian-language edition, investigated corruption in the government tender system and personal property declarations of the government officials.

In 2019, Radio Azattyk’s Ydyrys Isakov uncovered how Osh’s sports clubs engaged in racketeering and intimidation at the request and under the protection of local government officials.

Temirov launched his investigative YouTube channel, Temirov Live, in 2020 and helped further investigate the corruption of Raimbek Matraimov, the former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan’s customs.  

This flourishing of the investigative journalism scene pushed Kyrgyzstan, which since 1991 has stayed ahead of its Central Asian neighbors on press freedom, to 82nd place out of 180 in Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 global press freedom ranking, ahead of all former Soviet republics except for the Baltic states, Georgia, and Armenia.   

Then in October 2020 Sadyr Japarov, a former member of parliament and a populist firebrand who was serving a prison sentence for kidnapping a local official, was released by a crowd of supporters who were protesting the results of an allegedly rigged parliamentary election and the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the ensuing chaos, Japarov maneuvered himself first into the prime ministership and then almost immediately into an acting presidency following the October 15 resignation of President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.

A few months later, in January 2021, Japarov won the presidential election and secured himself in power. Since then, he appointed his close ally, Kamychbek Tashiev, to run the country’s notorious security service – the State Committee for National Security (GKNB or SCNS) – and crack down on any threats to their power.

“The first attempts to pressure our journalists started in 2019 when we published our investigation into Raimbek Matraimov,” said Anna Kapushenko, Kloop’s editor-in-chief. “The real pressure started when Japarov and Tashiev came to power. They started using the same tools as the Russian government – derogatory public statements, judicial harassment, troll factories.” 

“I was beaten up by three strangers in January of 2020 and the website underwent a DDoS attack a month before. But it has gotten worse since [Japarov] has come to power,” agreed Temirov.

Dilbar Alimova, the editor-in-chief of Politklinika, also recounted someone breaking into their office and stealing work laptops and hard drives in the spring of 2020.

Since Japarov pushed himself to the top in October 2020, independent journalists in Kyrgyzstan have experienced a significant rise in online harassment and troll activity, both from temporary fake accounts and those permanently affiliated with certain politicians as protection against targeted criticism. Kloop published several investigations into troll factories and their ties to government officials. Under Temirov, also investigated the rise of online harassment of journalists and other dissident voices in the country. “[These trolls] say that I ‘sold out to the West,’ that I am the ‘enemy of the Kyrgyz people,’” Temirov told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at the time.   

“It took [Japarov and Tashiev] just six months to ramp up the pressure on journalists,” confirmed Niyazova, formerly with In Kyrgyzstan, with its weak economy and high poverty rate, independent media outlets usually can’t rely on subscription revenue from their readers and have to depend on ad revenue and grants. With Japarov’s rise to power, the country’s government has started putting pressure on businesses and state corporations not to buy ads in media outlets seen as hostile to the government narrative. 

“Because of Japarov, the Manas Airport, Megacom, the Kumtor corporation all have stopped buying ads in Living off of ad revenue became impossible and we had to reorient ourselves towards grant funding from foreign donors,” said Niyazova.

In the summer of 2021, Japarov made his first legislative moves aimed at curtailing critical voices. That July, he signed a law that requires NGOs to file onerous financial reports to remain in good standing with tax authorities. The law was introduced amid growing anti-Western sentiment among politicians and religious groups, who increasingly accused independent journalists and human rights activists of spreading “Western ideology” and “LGBT propaganda.” Civil society leaders saw the new controls as a response to media investigations into high-level corruption and rightfully feared these controls would be used to cripple the work of independent activists. 

A month later, Japarov signed into law the controversial “false information” bill in violation of parliamentary procedure. The bill gave the government more power to take down online information it deems false and forced owners of websites and social media accounts to disclose their personal data and e-mail addresses. The intended use of the law became clear in October 2022, when the government blocked Radio Azattyk’s website because of a news story about the border conflict with Tajikistan, which government officials deemed “against the national interests of Kyrgyzstan.”

State financial police soon ordered a block on Radio Azattyk’s bank accounts under the article of the criminal code on countering terrorism and money laundering. The state-owned television and radio channels also suspended the broadcasting of Radio Azattyk’s programs, and seven of its reporters were stripped of their parliamentary accreditation. In January 2023, the government ordered the liquidation of Radio Azattyk, a decision that was annulled by an appeals court in July 2023 after the outlet agreed to remove the materials targeted by prosecutors.

“Radio Azattyk is the biggest independent media in the region; they were supposed to be the main point of opposition against the government. If even they with their vast resources couldn’t fight off the authorities, who can?” lamented Kloop’s Kapushenko. “The Radio Azattyk case broke the journalists across the country emotionally.” 

A handful of the journalists The Diplomat spoke to for this piece alleged that Radio Azattyk was forced to settle with the government behind the scenes in an attempt to stay in the country, a move that is expected to weaken its future reporting; Radio Azattyk did not respond to a request for comment.

For so long Central Asia’s standout country for independent journalism and media innovation, Kyrgyzstan fell 50 places in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 global press freedom ranking.

“With all these new restrictions, the independent media is barely breathing now. The false information law, for example, essentially targets specifically the media,” said Nurbek Sydykov of the Media Policy Institute, a longstanding NGO defending free expression and media freedom in Kyrgyzstan. “The Constitution clearly prohibits any laws that restrict press freedom and freedom of speech so we figured it couldn’t get any worse because it would require amending the Constitution itself.” 

But the attacks on press freedom have grown only more brazen ever since.

“[Law enforcement] came for me on late Saturday evening in the hopes that other journalists won’t learn quickly [about the arrest] and our lawyers won’t show up on time,” Temirov recounted of the infamous evening of January 22, 2022, when his outlet’s office in Bishkek was sacked, his equipment and documents seized, and he was arrested on false drug charges. 

At the time, Temirov Live had just released an investigation uncovering the Tashiev family’s apparent influence over the operations of a state-controlled fuel refinery. Speaking to the press during the Temirov trial, Japarov said there was no pressure on the media in Kyrgyzstan, only on journalists who “try to evade responsibility for their crimes.” 

The president further commented that such journalists conduct pseudo-investigations, spread false information, discredit individuals, and mislead the public, sending an unambiguous message about Temirov’s fate. By the end of the year, he was convicted of using forged documents to obtain a Kyrgyz passport – an absurd charge given that no one disputes he was born in Soviet Kyrgyzstan and thus entitled to Kyrgyz citizenship. But Temirov was stripped of his citizenship anyway and deported to Russia. He can’t return to Kyrgyzstan for five years and today continues his investigative work from an undisclosed location in Europe. 

“Every two years in January something special happens either to me or to my team,” he chuckled over a call with The Diplomat.

In August 2023, under the pretense of creating a safe information environment for children, Japarov signed a law that gave his government even more power to take down undesirable information. That same summer, state prosecutors moved to shut down Kloop because Kloop Media, its NGO publisher, was not properly registered as a media organization. A court approved the shut-down in February. 

In May 2023, Japarov introduced a draft law on mass media, arguing that the current law, passed in 1992, was out of date. The bill suggested re-registration of all media outlets in the country under ambiguous and broad requirements with plenty of room for misinterpretation and abuse. In its analysis, the Media Policy Institute concluded that one of the goals of the proposed law is the liquidation of media outlets considered undesirable by the authorities. This past March Japarov withdrew the bill for further revisions; the seventh version of the bill is expected to be reintroduced again.

“The [proposed media registration] requirements were very unclear,” Niyazova, who is part of the working group advising the parliament on the media law reform, explained. “For example, an outlet must list out its geographic reach. But you can’t list the entire world and if someone reads you in a country you didn’t list it could serve as grounds for liquidation. Or the government wants each outlet to submit their detailed standard operating procedures, thus interfering with editorial independence.”

Finally, on April 2, 2024, Japarov took arguably the most destructive shot against the country’s dissenting voices by signing the foreign agents law, heavily inspired by similar regulations in Russia. The law mandates that NGOs receiving foreign funding be labeled “foreign representatives” and be subject to costly reporting and auditing requirements.

Kyrgyzstan has some 29,000 NGOs. Though it’s unclear how many of them are actually active, many have played a critical role in attracting and distributing foreign aid. In fact, the government has effectively outsourced considerable public service provision to NGOs. Many civil society actors have started closing down in the wake of the law. Furthermore, the law will also hurt the country’s independent media, which – given the funding difficulties media around the world face and the crippled advertisement market in Kyrgyzstan – have long relied on foreign funding to keep reporting.

“I think the law allows government officials to dip their hands in foreign funding and to have more tools to crush dissent. It also helps Japarov to show his loyalty to Russia, an important consideration in the current geopolitical environment,” explained Kapushenko. 

When asked what she made of these developments under Japarov, she said, “I think the sale and the recent arrests of journalists are part of a long game aimed at shutting down anyone who can hurt the Japarov regime. The opposition is divided, organized crime groups vying for power have been diminished, big businesses have been raided, and civil society is slowly bleeding out. These are all the players who could stand up to the government. Now it is the media’s turn and the journalists’ arrests are meant to show how far this government is willing to go.”

“These recent arrests and illegal searches and the new laws are negatively impacting the work of the media. There’s growing self-censorship and the journalists are constantly living in fear now,” lamented Sydykov of the Media Policy Institute.

But while some are not sure how to stay in journalism amid the government’s growing hostility – Niyazova, for one, doesn’t want to quit but can’t see herself working in Kyrgyzstan anymore – others are resolved to continue their fight, too. 

“If before we could brag about the strongest investigative journalism tradition in the region, today it is growing weaker, [the government] is trying to break us. But I don’t think they will succeed,” said Politklinika’s Alimova. “Many journalists continue their work from abroad. One way or another, our journalists will do what matters.” 

“I won’t deny that it is scary. But today journalism is the only way to find any sort of justice and fairness in Kyrgyzstan,” said Temirov, whose wife is among the Temirov Live journalists in detention in Kyrgyzstan. His outlet, together with Kloop and OCCRP, just published a damning investigation into how state projects are handed to Japarov’s proxies while the public spending system is growing more and more opaque.

“Until there are [no more] people like us who stand up to the system, who refuse to give up and to break, there’s hope for a robust civil society and for a responsive government. Without people like that there is no future.”