In Kyrgyzstan, the arrest of eleven journalists illustrates the authoritarian turn of the regime

Nazgul Matanayeva cannot stop crying when she talks about the fate of her daughter Aike Beishekeyeva, a young Kyrgyz journalist who is awaiting trial in a detention center in the capital, Bishkek

In Kyrgyzstan, the arrest of eleven journalists illustrates the authoritarian turn of the regime

Nazgul Matanayeva cannot stop crying when she talks about the fate of her daughter Aike Beishekeyeva, a young Kyrgyz journalist who is awaiting trial in a detention center in the capital, Bishkek. “I told her it was dangerous work, but she always tried to reassure me. »

In Kyrgyzstan, journalists are becoming increasingly rare. On January 16, her twenty-third birthday, Aike Beishekeyeva was arrested for “inciting mass unrest,” alongside ten journalists and activists. All are or were employed by Temirov Live, a media outlet whose video investigations have lifted the veil on the corruption of the ruling elites of this Central Asian country, from the president's son to the head of the secret service. Detainees face years in prison if convicted.

According to observers, this wave of arrests is part of a campaign of intimidation directed against journalist Bolot Temirov, creator of the eponymous media outlet. This 44-year-old man has already paid dearly for his investigations and virulent criticism of the government. In recent years, he has been beaten, wiretapped by the secret service, deprived of his citizenship and deported to Russia.

Now working from an undisclosed location in Europe, Mr. Temirov releases an incessant stream of videos and messages on social media to denounce the impunity of the authorities and demand that they release his colleagues. His wife was warned that their 11-year-old son could be placed in an orphanage if she did not cooperate with the law.

A video presented as proof

“The authorities want to burn everything around Temirov, so that he no longer has a team,” says Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a Kyrgyz human rights activist in exile in Vienna. This is to scare away anyone who would like to support him or engage in similar activities. »

To justify the recent wave of arrests, the Kyrgyz authorities have, to date, presented only one "evidence": a video published in December 2023 on Ait Ait Dese, a YouTube channel of the Temirov galaxy, which allegedly contains “calls for mass unrest.” In this video, the journalist's wife, Makhabat Tazhibek Kyzy, angrily denounces corruption and the authorities "in place for thirty years".

“She says in this video that all coups and revolutions are useless, because one clan only replaces another. It is difficult to describe this as a call for revolution,” defends Bolot Temirov. The journalist notes that with the exception of his wife, “none of the other people [detainees] have any connection with this video”, “not even the cameraman”. Six of them are no longer even employed by Temirov Live.

The Kyrgyz authorities refuse to comment on the matter. However, President Sadyr Japarov spoke about it in revealing terms during a recent interview with the newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek. “In the turbulent and turbulent times we are going through, freedom of expression is closely linked to responsibility,” declared the Head of State. In this regard, we must take preventive measures. »

A scent of the absurd

The attack on the Terimov Live team comes against a backdrop of growing democratic unease in Kyrgyzstan. The country, often referred to as a “democratic island,” was once the freest of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics. Although known for its frequent revolutions – it has experienced three since its independence in 1991 – the country has long also organized real elections, had a vigorous media scene and civil society, including feminist groups and disability rights advocates.

However, the noose has tightened in recent years under the leadership of a president who combines populist rhetoric with methods of control reminiscent of Putin's Russia. “People are very afraid,” says activist Leila Nazgul Seiitbek. In some cases, our colleagues are reluctant to bring books from their trips abroad back into the country. This had never happened before. »

Everyone fears being the next target, especially since situations sometimes border on the absurd. So when the independent media outlet Kloop was shut down by court order in February, prosecutors summoned psychiatrists to demonstrate that the outlet was “affecting people’s mental health” by “disturbing” them with negative information. In Reporters Without Borders' World Press Freedom Index, Kyrgyzstan has fallen 50 places in one year (placing itself at 122nd out of 180 in 2023).

“Very strong Russian influence”

How did Kyrgyzstan get to this point? “There are no institutions to carry out democratization,” argues Asel Doolotkeldieva, political scientist at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, in a recent episode of the “Talk Eastern Europe” podcast. We need political parties, we need ideologies, left, right, we need appropriate political conflicts to formulate these ideologies. Without this, lasting changes cannot be expected. »

Indeed, it was a popular uprising that brought the current leaders of Kyrgyzstan to power. In October 2020, people took to the streets to protest against the results of an election perceived as rigged and against the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid the chaos, Sadyr Japarov was released from prison where he had been serving a ten-year sentence for kidnapping. The populist politician immediately took charge of the government, before being elected president a few weeks later.

In tandem with his ally Kamtchybek Tashiev, placed at the head of a secret service with growing influence, Mr. Japarov has continued to strengthen his hold on the country. Wielding nationalist rhetoric at will, claiming to represent ordinary Kyrgyz citizens in the face of a demonized foreign influence, the head of state had a series of repressive laws adopted on disinformation, the media, the associative sector and " foreign agents.”

The fact that this legal arsenal is reminiscent of laws used against dissidents in Russia is, according to observers, more than a coincidence. Activist Leila Nazgul Seiitbek believes that the “very strong Russian influence” suffered by the regime is explained by its “weakness”: “They have to count on someone to protect their power and keep them in power, and therefore traditionally consider Putin as the guarantor of their safety. And when you have Putin as your lord protector, it's obvious that you can't do much in terms of developing democracy. »