Kyrgyzstan’s New Internet Bill: Censorship or Disinformation Prevention?
On June 19, the Kyrgyz Parliament (Jogorku Kenesh) held a joint hearing on an internet transparency bill, “The Bill on Information Manipulation.” They had previously discussed this bill, originally proposed on May 14, by lawmakersGulshat Asylbayeva and Ainur Osmonova. This bill would create a governmental agency under the Ministry of Culture to approve information published on social media and other websites. This would allow the Kyrgyz government to close websites accused of spreading misinformation. Additionally, this would require internet providers to store user’s private online information, including uploaded audio, video, and photo materials, for about six months. The government would then have the right to request such information at any time. This would apply to all internet service users, rather than solely being limited to journalists publishing opposition pieces.
Ultimately, this bill was passed on June 25, when the Kyrgyz Parliament voted 79 to 10 in favor. There has been much outrage over the fact that various lawmakers voted in favor of the bill on behalf of absent politicians to meet the quorum, leading to public charges that the bill was passed undemocratically and unfairly. However, until President Sooronbay Jeenbekov signs the bill, it will not enter into force.
Reactions to this bill were mixed. Asylbayeva, the bill’s main sponsor, stated that this law would protect the citizens of Kyrgyzstan from slander and libel, of which she claimed that she, herself, had been a victim. Additionally, Asylbayeva stated that this would protect from widespread misinformation on important issues, like the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of those present at the June 19 hearing were journalists who reported for Kyrgyz state-run media outlets and supported Asylbayeva’s sentiments. There were, however, vocal opponents.
Among the most noted opponents of this bill was journalist Bolot Temirov. Temirov runs the opposition website, Factcheck, an independent news source often writing about corruption. In January 2020, Temirov was assaulted by three unidentifiable men, presumably for his work as an independent journalist. Temirov stated this bill would only function to suppress dissent. He added that the bill was heavily influenced by Russia, with much of it modeled after a similar Russian law from 2006, restricting internet freedom.
On May 27, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) noted various problems with this bill after it was initially proposed to the Parliament. RWB said that a key flaw of this law is that the regulatory agency responsible for overseeing online activity would be anonymous and would instill fear in the Kyrgyz population, and that the language of the bill was too vague. Moreover, RWB stated this is a direct violation of Article 31 of the Kyrgyz Constitution that holds that all individuals have freedom of thought and opinion and that no single person can be forced to express his or her views. Point four of Article 31 states, “The propaganda of national, ethnic, racial, religious hatred, gender and other social superiority, which calls for discrimination, hostility or violence, is prohibited.”
The debate surrounding internet freedom is not new to Kyrgyzstan. While there have been instances of outward censorship and repression, there have also been justifiable instances of government intervention to prevent extremism and radicalization. In 2017, the Kyrgyz government banned the website “JustPaste.it.” At first glance, this approach seems oppressive. However, the Islamic State was using this website to recruit and radicalize members to become foreign fighters. Considering that there has been a rise in Central Asian foreign fighters and that from 2006 to 2010 over 800 Kyrgyz nationals traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State, such concerns were not unwarranted. However, there have also been instances of Kyrgyz government authorities labeling dissidents as terrorists and threatening to stifle opposition.
On June 30, Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging the Kyrgyz President to override this bill. On June 29, hundreds marched in Bishkek to protest. Many of the protesters argued that the bill had not been passed legally. Many also called for Asylbayeva to resign. Overall, if President Jeenbekov signs the bill, it is likely that Kyrgyzstan will increase its censorship policies. It is unclear if the Kyrgyz government purposely modeled this bill on Russian policies, or if this is merely the result of increasing Russian influence in the region.