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Kyrgyzstan internet law raises fears for free speech in COVID fog

Critics say bill, ostensibly aimed at false virus info, would enable corruption

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov is greeted by a Russian official on a visit to Moscow in late June. Legislation that would restrict internet freedom is awaiting the president's signature.   © Getty Images

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Ignoring official warnings, hundreds of protestors marched through Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek earlier this week in a last-ditch attempt to stop legislation that would significantly restrict free speech online.

Some say the law could do much more than that -- potentially becoming a tool to block allegations of a murky web of corruption.

The proposed legislation, which was passed by Kyrgyzstan's parliament on June 25 and now awaits President Sooronbai Jeenbekov's signature, would allow the government to censor online information it deems "false" or "inaccurate" by cutting off access to websites and closing social media accounts without a court ruling. It would also require internet service providers to collect verified information on users and store it for six months.

Kyrgyzstan's lawmakers argue that the law is needed to counter the proliferation of fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic and, according to Gulshat Asylbayeva, a deputy behind the bill, uphold the right of people to protect their "honor and dignity" after facing online slights.

But critics have expressed fears that the government is using the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on civil rights, with opaque legislation that does not define how information would be determined to be false in the first place. The demonstrators who took to the streets on Monday urged the president to exercise his veto power.

"Given the vague wording and the lack of judicial oversight, the information law's threat to freedom of speech and the media cannot be overstated," said Mihra Rittmann of Human Rights Watch.

Muslims pray while observing social distancing requirements at a mosque in Bishkek in June.   © Getty Images

These views were echoed by Harlem Desir, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's representative on freedom of the media. "Vague legal definitions will not provide media and social media users with the necessary legal certainty in order to foresee the consequences of their activities," he said.

Lawyers and human rights defenders in the country see the law as a tool to make inconvenient allegations disappear, since anyone would be able to lodge a complaint about false information and potentially get a site blocked.

Recently, a series of articles alleging widespread corruption in Kyrgyzstan have appeared. Last November, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) teamed up with Kloop.kg, a local independent media outlet, and the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty to report on a massive cross-border smuggling ring that was allegedly working in league with Kyrgyzstan's customs service.

The allegations hinged on the evidence of Aierken Saimaiti, a businessman from China's Xinjiang Province, who claimed to have moved at least $700 million in cash and transfers from Kyrgyzstan to various locations over a five-year period.

Saimaiti, a self-confessed money launderer, had kept detailed records that pointed fingers at a network of companies run by Khabibula Abdukadyr, a Chinese-born Uighur businessman, as the main recipient of the funds from the smuggling ring. As these revelations were about to break, Saimaiti was shot and killed in Istanbul.

For the smuggling operation to function, high-level connections were needed in Kyrgyzstan. The former deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's customs service, Raimbek Matraimov, was alleged in Saimaiti's documents to be that connection.

Matraimov has strongly denied the claims made against him and his family, and responded with libel suits. Despite having worked in the public sector for most of his life, Matraimov is known in Kyrgyzstan for having amassed a huge fortune, earning him the nickname "Raim Million."

An investigation was opened into the customs smuggling claims in November, but progress has been glacial. A Kyrgyz parliamentary commission looking into Saimaiti's murder and the smuggling racket concluded in mid-June that the millions of dollars spirited through Kyrgyzstan -- nearly $1 billion, officials have admitted -- was not, in fact, related to Kyrgyzstan but rather to "Kyrgyz and foreign private entrepreneurs" working in Uzbekistan. The security services have tried to deflect attention from the scandal by making unsubstantiated claims that Saimaiti paid investigative journalists to smear Abdukadyr after a falling out.

The authorities have pursued other corruption cases far more enthusiastically. On June 23, Almazbek Atambayev, Jeenbekov's predecessor as president and former mentor turned sworn enemy, was jailed for 11 years after being found guilty of ordering the unlawful release of an imprisoned gangland boss back in 2013.

A supporter of Kyrgyzstan's former president, Almazbek Atambayev, attends a rally for him last year. He has since been jailed for 11 years.   © Reuters

Atambayev denied the charge and insisted the case, which was brought against him after he fell out with the president, was a political reprisal.

The ex-president's imprisonment followed earlier cases that saw two former prime ministers with close links to Atambayev jailed for corruption. Sapar Isakov was sentenced to 15 years and Jantoro Satybaldiev to seven and a half years for corruption linked to the awarding of a tender for the refurbishment of a thermal power plant in Bishkek to the Chinese company TBEA. Several boilers failed at the plant in January 2018, leaving thousands stranded without heat in freezing conditions.

This did nothing for China's public image in Kyrgyzstan, where protests against Chinese Belt and Road Initiative projects are not uncommon.

With Kyrgyzstan's economy hit hard by COVID-19 and parliamentary elections slated for later this year, President Jeenbekov will be hoping to put all these corruption scandals behind him.

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