The plight of Kyrgyzstan’s independent Kloop news service, under attack from the country’s populist Japarov regime, worsened on September 13 as several internet providers in the Central Asian nation put a block on its website.
The blocking, announced by Kloop, comes just two weeks after the Bishkek Prosecutor's Office commenced legal proceedings against the media outlet’s owner, Kloop Media Public Foundation. The prosecutor is bidding to suspend Kloop’s operations, pointing to the title’s relentlessly critical coverage of the government. Kloop is becoming something of a canary in the coal mine for media freedom and free speech in Kyrgyzstan, once regarded as a relative “island of democracy” in Central Asia, but now increasingly subject to illiberal and authoritarian moves by strongman President Sadyr Japarov, some of which ape oppressive laws and actions that have become the hallmark of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The exercising of power by Japarov has been under scrutiny since he became Kyrgyzstan’s leader in late 2020 after supporters sprung him from prison, where he was serving a sentence for allegedly attempting to kidnap a regional official in 2013. During the turmoil in the country ahead of Japarov and his allies taking power three years ago, the US embassy in Bishkek issued an unusually frank statement, saying: "It is clear that one of the obstacles towards democratic progress is the attempt by organized crime groups to exert influence over politics and elections."
Three days ago, a September 11 report from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which often works with Kloop in news investigations, described how Japarov has promoted two major projects—a large mosque and a complex in central Bishkek—that will be developed by an infamous tycoon accused of smuggling.
This week has also seen Kloop, established 16 years ago, respond to a culture ministry demand that it take down an article about the alleged torture of jailed opposition politician Ravshan Jeenbekov. On September 12, Kloop published an article in which it said it would not remove the material, noting that the news story attributed all information about Jeenbekov’s situation in custody to actual individuals and sources.
According to Kloop, the Bishkek Prosecutor's Office initiated its lawsuit against it after an audit by the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) concluded that Kloop’s "published materials are aimed at sharply criticising the policies of the current government" and that "most of the publications are purely negative, aimed at discrediting representatives of state and municipal bodies".
Most of Kloop’s contributors are students and graduates of the Kloop Media Public Foundation School of Journalism. The media outlet has indeed become known for publishing reports on corruption in government. It provides training to Central Asian journalists in fact-checking and investigative techniques.
RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Kloop, and OCCRP have collaborated on a series of investigations concerning corruption in the former Soviet state.
By now, it is well recognised that there is a deepening authoritarian crackdown in Kyrgyzstan that includes targets across civil society.
One example of this is the case of more than 20 people, including NGO leaders and other activists, who are facing trial on serious charges for their opposition to a controversial border agreement between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that was announced by Japarov last year.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged Kyrgyz authorities to stop the move to liquidate Kloop. It deemed the actions of the Japarov administration "an outrageous and deeply cynical attempt to stifle some of Kyrgyzstan’s most probing investigative journalism, including investigations of alleged corruption involving leading state officials."
In the annual media freedom rankings, published lately by the Reporters Without Borders watchdog, Kyrgyzstan droppd 50 places to 122nd out of 180 countries.
In its latest coverage of Kyrgyzstan focused on Japarov’s links to some big investment projects in the country, OCCRP cited Temur Umarov, a political analyst and fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.
“This is a country,” said Umarov, “that’s authoritarian, but pretends to be democratic. The person who leads it can create an illusion. We have two ways to understand every situation. The first is the official one, the one they want to convince us of. And the second is the real one. In reality, I think that Japarov and those who surround him just want to create a good life for themselves.”
Umarov added: “Journalists will write that … all of this shouldn’t be happening, that Japarov can’t use his position to let the people around him, and especially his relatives, earn money from unknown places. But everyone understands that, while formally he can’t, in reality he can. No one will get in his way.”