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A nation must think before it acts.
Wearing face masks stamped with a bright red X, demonstrators marched down Bishkek’s Freedom Boulevard on June 29 in protest of a bill regulating disinformation in Kyrgyzstan. The legislation, widely viewed as an attempt to curb freedom of speech, has left Kyrgyz citizens and international observers less worried about sham internet accounts and more worried about a sham democracy.
The controversial legislation is nominally aimed at countering disinformation and fake online accounts. The bill would give the government sweeping authority to block websites with “false” information, ban anonymous accounts, and require telecommunications companies to store user data for six months and provide it to the authorities upon request. After being hurriedly adopted in parliament 79-10, the bill is now on President Sooronbay Jeenbekov’s desk to sign or veto.
Journalists, legal experts, activists, and ordinary citizens have spoken out against the bill, arguing that it is an unconstitutional attempt to hamper freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan. The law is extremely vague and does not provide definitions of “manipulated” or “false” information, giving authorities significant leeway to decide the “truth” for themselves. Moreover, it does not specify which government body will be responsible for implementing the law—an important detail, especially considering the financial and technological costs necessary to enforce it. Critics of the bill also point out that Kyrgyz law already includes protections against libel and hate speech, and social networks have built-in methods for blocking fake users.
The parliamentary deputies who proposed the bill, Gulshat Asylbayeva and Ainura Osmonova, claim it is necessary to fight the spread of false information about the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the law’s broad reach, vague terminology, and redundancy with existing legislation suggest that its true motivations run deeper. Facing threats to their power from both journalists and political opponents, Kyrgyzstan’s ruling parties seem to have decided that freedom of speech is no longer welcome in Central Asia’s only democracy.
The new law is likely an attempt to stifle Kyrgyzstan’s emergent investigative journalism community, which is most active online and on social media. While journalists have sometimes faced threats and harassment, Kyrgyzstan has thus far avoided direct censorship. In recent years, increasingly bold and experienced journalists have uncovered instances of tax evasion and corruption by many Kyrgyz government officials—including Asylbayeva, the bill’s most vocal supporter. Notably, in 2019, several of the leading Kyrgyz investigative journalism outlets collaborated to uncover a massive smuggling ring and rampant corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s customs service, earning them the ire of some of the most powerful figures in the country. The groundbreaking revelations, which continue despite lawsuits and threats of violence, exposed for the first time the shadowy patronage networks that run Kyrgyzstan behind the scenes.
The customs investigation painted a damning picture of deep-rooted corruption and was backed by substantial evidence, but it led to few consequences for those implicated. The authorities ignored popular protests, and the officials named in the investigation have faced no legal repercussions. Although Kyrgyz journalists have exposed serious wrongdoing, the threat that their investigations pose to government officials is limited by prosecutorial negligence.
The bill is likely also aimed at protecting the political standing of the ruling parties ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in October. Despite some procedural problems and concerns about a lack of transparency, Kyrgyzstan’s last parliamentary election, held in 2015, was deemed relatively free and competitive by international monitors. However, this new bill would give incumbent officials significant influence over news coverage during elections, enabling them to silence legitimate criticism. And while investigative journalism may not have legal consequences, it can shape public opinion and erode the popularity of the Kyrgyz leadership. If signed into law, the bill would come into effect just as campaigning begins in earnest over the next few months.
Kyrgyzstan’s incumbent leadership is looking increasingly vulnerable. Last year’s split within the Social Democratic Party, a dominant force in Kyrgyz politics for the past ten years, has shaken the established political landscape and leaves room for opposition blocs to gain a new footing in parliament. In addition, the government’s ineffective response to the COVID-19 outbreak—which is overwhelming Kyrgyzstan’s ill-equipped healthcare system—has stirred widespread discontent. New political movements trying to build electoral momentum have joined activists in criticizing the regime’s handling of the pandemic. This is the type of dissent that the disinformation bill is designed to stifle.
The bill’s fate is now up to Jeenbekov. He may still choose to veto the legislation—a veto would significantly enhance his public image as a pro-democracy politician. But laws rarely pass in Kyrgyzstan’s parliament without the president’s support, and the bill’s restrictions on freedom of the press help Jeenbekov’s parliamentary allies who are seeking reelection in the fall. For now, Jeenbekov has remained silent about the bill.
On the heels of the government’s inaction in the customs case and its inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis, there is growing frustration and pessimism about Kyrgyzstan’s current leaders. Unlike the 2019 anti-corruption demonstrations, however, the protests sparked by the passage of the bill were largely comprised of Bishkek’s young, urban population. Unless this discontent reaches the older generations and the outlying regions, the government will not feel compelled to change course.
If signed into law, the bill would only further weaken the wavering foundations of democracy in Kyrgyzstan. Large sections of the legislation were copied directly from a law passed in Russia in 2006, and other Central Asian states, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, have also used the pandemic to justify restrictions on freedom of speech. Kyrgyzstan is coming to resemble its autocratic neighbors more and more. If the country continues along its current course, with little public accountability and shrinking civil rights, then it will soon join them as a democracy in name only.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.