Kyrgyzstan President Rejects “Fake News” Legislation
On August 3, Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov sent the highly controversial “On the manipulation of information” bill back to the Jogorku Kenes (Kyrgyz Parliament) for revision. According to the Kyrgyz press office, Mr. Jeenbekov sent the bill back to ensure the protection of human rights and freedom of expression. In his response, he stated his desire for representatives from civil society, legal experts, and state officials to have a part in the bill’s revision. He stated that his veto was in accord with Articles 64 and 81 of the Kyrgyz Constitution. Both articles stress that the president can reject proposed bills and send them to the Jogorku Kenes for revision. President Jeenbekov’s rejection of the bill happened days after Kyrgyz activist Azimjan Askarov died in Kyrgyz police custody on July 25.
Askarov was internationally known as a human rights activist, and there was much controversy over his arrest and treatment while in prison. The domestic and international outcry over Mr. Askarov’s untimely death likely influenced this unusual veto in the name of human rights, perhaps to avoid drawing more attention to human-rights abuse scandals in Kyrgyzstan.
Lawmaker Gulshat Asylbayeva had introduced this highly controversial legislation. She that the parliament had passed this bill to protect against slander and potentially harmful disinformation, primarily about terrorism and COVID-19. The bill was initially introduced on May 14 and passed on June 25, when it was sent to Jeenbekov for his consideration. This law would allow Kyrgyz authorities to block websites with “false information,” though many have argued that this would simply result in mass censorship of political dissidents. This bill also would require those posting on the internet to use their actual identities, making anonymous internet activity punishable by criminal prosecution.
While passed by the parliament, this bill was met with public outrage and mired in controversy. Protestors demonstrated throughout Bishkek on June 29. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on June 30 condemning the decision and imploring Jeenbekov to veto this bill. When HRW proposed the veto, they also mentioned other recent legislation by the Kyrgyz government that violates human rights. Specifically, HRW condemned the change to the Criminal Procedural Code that required the Kyrgyz courts to re-examine criminal cases condemned by international human rights organizations. In other words, the Kyrgyz government previously had to reconsider criminal cases if an international human rights organization discovered a violation in the arrest. Recent amendments have removed this requirement.
Azimjan Askarov was a human rights activist who died on July 25 in a Kyrgyz prison, after having been in custody for 10 years. He was arrested on what many believe to be baseless charges of inciting violence and the murder of a police officer during the 2010 Osh riots. A journalist and activist, he targeted corruption and rights abuses in the Kyrgyz police force and penal system. Following his imprisonment, Mr. Askarov received the Homo Homini Award in 2011, the International Press Freedom Award in 2012, and the Human Rights Defender Award in 2014. His health, adversely effected nearly from the beginning of his incarceration, dramatically declined in recent months. Various human rights organizations called for his release because of his failing health. Kyrgyz officials stated he died of pneumonia, although it is suspected that Askarov died of coronavirus. The European External Action Service and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights condemned his death, treatment, and imprisonment. United Nations Human Rights Expert Mary Lawlor condemned his death and the Kyrgyz government’s record of violating human rights
Jeenbekov’s veto of this bill, on the grounds of protecting human rights, is likely connected to Askarov’s internationally noted death. Given that the bill could still pass with only minimal changes, Kyrgyzstan’s society will need to maintain pressure on the government to ensure its internet freedoms are not eroded. And in fact, Askarov’s death seems to have galvanized Kyrgyz society. Perhaps the rights Mr. Askarov could not obtain in life will be won for Kyrgyzstan by his death.