Illustration: Alina Pechenkina for Kloop

The detention of Bolot Temirov for alleged drug possession immediately after the publication of his investigation of the State Committee for National Security head’s nephew was the logical continuation of an ongoing series of assaults, threats, and intimidation of reporters in Kyrgyzstan. Kloop analyzed data from the past five years and found that despite the numerous attacks and strong pressure put on Kyrgyz journalists, almost nobody has been held accountable.

One day in May 2018, customers at Bishkek’s Beta Stores supermarket witnessed an unusual scene: two store employees grabbed and twisted the arms of a store visitor who, trying to break free, started crying out, “Where’s the camera? Where’s my camera?” Meanwhile, several meters away, four other store employees wrested a video camera from the man’s companion.

Despite how it may have looked, the two men weren’t shoplifters. They were journalists who came to the store to film a report about the expired foods lining its shelves. Their camera was eventually returned, but not until the intervention of the police, who the journalists called themselves.

This case was far from unique. In the five-and-a-half-year period from January 2015 to July 2021, the Kyrgyz Prosecutor General’s Office recorded 42 cases of unlawful acts targeting journalists. At the time of this report’s publication, only five of the cases have made it to court, while 28 have been dismissed after investigators failed to find sufficient evidence that a crime had been committed.

But law enforcement records don’t catch everything. Kloop’s Data Department compiled news reports of attacks, threats, pressure, and interference with journalists’ work — and counted at least 75 such incidents.

Journalists have been harassed and threatened; they’ve had their equipment broken, their cars vandalized, and their offices searched and even set on fire. They’ve been hit in the head with steel bars, strangled, knocked to the ground, and dragged along the ground. Almost all of these cases have either occurred while the victims were on the job or been related to their work.

The violence and harassment Kyrgyz journalists have faced has come from both ordinary citizens and from the authorities: state agents were responsible for almost half of the incidents reported.

The honor of a politician worth a million bucks

One of the authorities’ favorite ways to apply pressure on journalists is through the court. Officials named in articles about corruption do their best to bankrupt the outlets that publish them, suing them for enormous amounts of money.

Lower-ranking officials also resort to legal measures. In 2015, ex-deputy chief of staff to the president Ikramjan Ilminyanov filed a lawsuit against the website Kabar Ordo, part of the media group Vecherny Bishkek, after the site published an interview with the opposition figure Uran Botobekov in which Botobekov accused Ilminyanov of corruption and links to the mafia.

Ilmiyanov was close to Almazbek Atambayev: until 2009, he was his personal driver, and after Atambayev’s election to the presidency, Ilmiyanov became a presidential advisor before his promotion to deputy chief of staff.

In 2018, Ilmiyanov threatened to file a lawsuit against several other media outlets for disseminating information about his involvement with Ikhlas, a company close to ex-customs official Raim Matraimov but didn’t manage to — because Ilmiyanov himself became a person of interest in a criminal case and was ultimately sentenced to prison for illegally receiving $150 thousand in “sponsorship aid” during the elections.

In the case of the lawsuit against Kabar Ordo, however, Ilmiyanov came out on top. In 2019, a regional court demanded the journalists responsible for the article pay him 1.8 million soms (around $20 thousand) in compensation for moral damage in addition to retracting the allegations that had discredited his honor and dignity. The retraction was published in Vecherny Bishkek.

For comparison: in 2021, after 10 years of litigation, a Kyrgyz court, under pressure from the UN Commission on Human Rights, granted police torture victim Ulan Nazaraliyev’s claim for compensation for material and moral damage. The government paid Nazarilyev 50 thousand soms instead of the requested three million. The court refused to hold the policemen who had tortured him criminally liable and let him off with a strict warning.

Ex-customs official Raimbek Matraimov, who organized a crime network that resulted in at least $700 million being taken from Kyrgyzstan, also sued the media outlets that published investigations about him. He initially demanded 60 million soms in compensation but abandoned the claim after a court found him guilty of corruption.

For the last five years, high-ranking officials have filed lawsuits against journalists in Kyrgyzstan on at least ten occasions. Even presidents Almazbek Atambayev and Sooronbay Jeenbekov have sued the media. Atambayev frequently criticized journalists, and in 2016, he sued the website Zanoza in response to a series of articles accusing him of corruption. Jeenbekov filed a suit against news agency after they published an article claiming that he and his brother, Acylbek, allegedly had connections to radical Arab organizations.

Atambayev won the lawsuit — Zanoza’s site was shut down and the president declined a compensation of 30 million soms after leaving office. His successor, Jeenbekov, followed his example and, during the litigation process, withdrew his claim against

The power struggle against the “fourth pillar”

In recent years, journalists more and more often have faced obstruction of their activities, pressure, and the direct application of force while working. In almost half of all incidents, the threats came from civil servants and law enforcement officers. In January 2021, during the presidential elections, police, and members of the election commissions prohibited correspondents of independent media outlets from entering polling stations and filming, took away their technology, and detained and took the journalists to the police station. The same things happened during other election campaigns as well.

On the day of the parliamentary elections on October 4th, 2020 in Osh unknown men attacked cameraman Khamidullo Uzakov and journalist Aibike Adilet kyzy at a polling station.

Journalists from Kloop later discovered that the attackers were an employee of the municipal company “Osh-Tazalik”, Dostuk Zholdoshov, and an employee of the Osh Airport, Manas Almamatov. On that day they were present at the polling station as representatives of the party “Birimdik” – as proven by the badge worn on the chest of one of the men.

But the evidence collected by the journalists did not make an impression on the police – pre-trial proceedings, initiated at the request of the victims, were stopped.

On two occasions, journalists were not allowed to attend the court sessions in the case of the ex-head of customs Matraimov. One time, employees of the court removed journalists from the hall under false pretenses and then locked them up.

Sometimes the police demonstrate criminal inaction, which raises suspicions of their own participation in the violence. On August 6th, 2021 journalist Ulukbek Karybek uulu was vacationing on lake Issyk-Kul and witnessed preparations for a meeting between local residents and the then head of the Cabinet of Ministers of Kyrgyzstan, Ulukbek Maripov.

The official came to the region to talk with families affected by mudslides, but before the conversation, Maripov’s people came to the crowd and began to specify which questions should be asked and who should ask them. Karybek uulu became indignant, pointing out that the authorities should listen to the people, after which three men in civilian clothes approached him and suggested that he leave. When the journalist refused, he was forced into a car and taken in an unknown direction. The kidnappers were not stopped in spite of the fact that police officers were nearby.

“They took a road where there were no cars. They exerted psychological pressure, making threats with a knife. They called me swear words, meaning that I’m itching [for a beating]. They drove, subjecting me to psychological pressure and threatening me,” Karybek uulu later said.

The journalist managed to get out of the car, pushing away the driver, when they stopped in the city of Karakol. They tried to capture him again, but taxi drivers helped Ulukbek, saving him and capturing video of the kidnappers and their unnumbered car. Later, Karybek uulu speculated that the kidnappers were police officers and even identified one of them. The journalist wrote a statement, but the kidnappers were never found. The police in the region deny that it was their coworkers.

Journalists catch hell during protests. In October 2020, during the riots in the center of Bishkek, Aibola Kozhomuratov, a journalist with “Current Times”, was deliberately shot by special forces. This episode was captured on video.

“The special forces officer saw that I was in a reflective vest filming on a camera, purposefully standing in a well-lit place, so that I could be seen. But somehow he decided to shoot me. Something zoomed over my head, I felt it with my hair. Another millimeter and it would’ve hit my head,” wrote Kozhomuratov on Twitter.

The police are active when it concerns authorities

If a journalist isn’t covering protests but an official meeting between authorities and the people, they have a chance to save themselves from attacks and physical violence and punish the offenders. But this is not always the case.

In April 2021, during a meeting with the head of the State Committee for National Security Kamchybek Tashiev concerning the exchange of land near Kempir-Abad reservoir, local residents kicked out a journalist from the television channel Region TV, which is associated with Tashiev. The correspondent was accused of the fact that the channel “communicates false information to the people.”

In response, the police opened a criminal case. After the interrogations of 20 people and preventative conversations, the case was closed, since the journalist himself had no claims against the attackers.

An awful incident happened with a journalist from the media outlet Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, Zulfiya Turgunova, during a meeting between Tashiev and residents of the city of Batken. On April 30th, 2021 Turgunova covered a conflict on the border with Tajikistan. When the correspondent approached the audience, a few men pushed her, threw her to the ground, and dragged her to the side on her knees. Tashiev, his bodyguards, and the ex-head of the Batken region Omurbek Suvanaliev were in attendance at this meeting.

But not a single one of them protected the journalist.

It’s also hard for journalists to get justice

In two-thirds of cases, after the attacks, the victims filed complaints with law enforcement agencies or initiated cases of obstruction of journalistic activities after the fact.

Only one case in the last five years ended with a real sentence, and the defendants still managed to escape punishment.

On the day of January 9th, 2020 in the center of Bishkek, only a few steps from his office, investigative journalist Bolot Temirov was attacked by three men. They knocked him to the ground and began to kick him. The criminals did not make any requests, they beat him silently, and then quickly disappeared. The journalist’s money and laptop were left untouched, so the incident was not a robbery. Temirov connected the attack to his professional activities: before that moment he had published several anti-corruption investigations, which involved high-ranking officials.

Slightly less than a year passed between the time of the attack and the sentencing. There were four defendants in the case. Initially, they confessed that they were carrying out orders, but later retracted their testimonies. The court ordered the attackers to 2.5 years of actual imprisonment and issued a 50 thousand som (around $530) fee to each defendant. But after serving almost a year in pre-trial detention, they were released from their sentences and given amnesty.

Illustration: Alina Pechenkina for Kloop

“We don’t pressure journalists.”

“How many people go to protests right now – both politicians and non-politicians, and we don’t persecute any of them. We don’t pressure journalists,” said then-newly-elected Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov in March 2021.

And already in July, his close associate, head of the State Committee of National Security Kamchybek Tashiev said in a press conference, “All those, who right now on the internet with impunity – with impunity for now – yell and say, while slinging mud, unfounded accusations against the head of state and other officials, at some time will be held responsible.”

Tahsiev did not hide the fact that he monitors the opposition not only within the country but also abroad.

“Each of you is now being recorded, each of you is being registered. In our country and abroad. We are now establishing agreements with other countries in order to bring some people here,” he said.

And now, half a year later the authorities have moved from words to actions. On the evening of January 22nd, 2022 the day after the release of an investigation about the nephew of Tashiev, police officers raided the Temirov Live editorial office. They put the journalists on the ground and took all the digital equipment from the premises.

During the search, law enforcement officers took a package from the back pocket of the jeans of investigative journalist Bolot Temirov, which contained a narcotic substance according to them. Temirov claims that the package was planted on him.

The next day, akyn-improviser Bolot Nazarov, who spoke about the anti-corruption investigation on Temirov Live in Kyrgyz, was detained. Drugs were also found on his person. And Nazarov also says that they were planted on him.

So the namesakes of the investigative journalist and the akyn-improviser appear to be in the hands of law enforcement. Both were allegedly detained at the request of an unnamed girl, who claimed somebody named Bolot had “urged her to use some kind of drugs.”

Journalists and citizen activists defended Temirov and Nazarov in a series of protests in support of freedom of speech which took place around the country. At the same time, on pro-government social media pages, video clips were published that were designed to discredit Temirov Live employees. The clips feature surveillance materials, wiretapping recordings, and documents from the confiscated computers.

Journalists from OCCRP, Kloop, and Azattik published an investigation that journalists from Temirov Live were followed for several months. Suspicious cars were parked close to the office for hours, in Bolot Temirov’s rented apartment they found a hidden camera and microphone, and one of the editorial staff was a victim of provocation and sexual blackmail.

A young man who the woman met at the gym courted her for a long time, and then, when the romance was in full swing, secretly made video recordings of several intimate scenes. These criminals promised to send these shots to the woman’s parents if she didn’t tell them about Temirov’s forthcoming investigations. The woman refused, and the clips of her ended up on social media sites.

Although the information from the seized computers could only be accessed by law enforcement officers, the State Committee of National Security and the police deny any involvement in the provocations against Temirov and his team.

Meanwhile, the pressure on the media in Kyrgyzstan is getting stronger. On February 9th in Bishkek, another protest took place (already the second) with a demand to recognize Azattik, Kloop, and Kaktus as foreign agents, independent of the government. Although Kyrgyzstan doesn’t have a law about “foreign agents,” the speaker of the parliament issued instructions to study an initiative considering such a bill, which had been gathering dust on the shelf since 2016.

One can easily imagine what the adoption of such a law would look like in practice by observing neighboring Russia. There, all noncommercial organizations working on problems the state prefers to keep silent are considered “foreign agents.”

These problems include domestic violence, prisoners’ rights, orphans’ problems – any topics which are dealt with by NGOs. Receiving the status of “foreign agent” in Russia could happen for any, even totally insignificant, transfer of ten dollars from one’s brother who left the country many years ago and received foreign citizenship.

Organizations and people who are branded as “foreign agents” in Russia must submit quarterly reports, attach to any publication (even comments on social media sites!) cumbersome clerical annotations, and for any violations of these rules, they are threatened with a fine of up to 50 thousand rubles (around $600) or prison time.

Author: Saadat Tologonova

Editor: Ekaterina Reznikova

Translated by Grace Mitchell and Sam Breazeale from Respond Crisis Translation