Kyrgyzstan

Partly Free
56
100
A Obstacles to Access 14 25
B Limits on Content 24 35
C Violations of User Rights 18 40
Last Year's Score & Status
61 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

The coverage period was marked by political squabbles, including the violent arrest of former president Almazbek Atambayev (leading to a localized internet shutdown). Prime Minister Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev resigned after being accused of corruption for his role in a scandal in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. At the same time, a high-profile corruption investigation published by independent journalists went ignored by the authorities, but drew the attention of the investigation’s subjects, who sued the journalists for punitive damages. Several journalists also were threatened or even attacked in connection with the investigation, while their websites faced distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. The authorities continued to prosecute users for their activities on social media platforms, including under sometimes spurious charges of inciting hatred. At the end of the coverage period, lawmakers debated a bill to combat “information manipulation” that would vastly expand the government’s ability to censor online content.

After two revolutions that ousted authoritarian presidents in 2005 and 2010, Kyrgyzstan adopted a parliamentary form of government. Governing coalitions have proven unstable, however, and corruption remains pervasive. In recent years, the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SPDK) has consolidated power by using the justice system to suppress political opponents and critics from civil society.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • In May 2020, Prime Minister Abylgaziyev took a leave of absence (and later resigned) amid accusations that he was complicit in the allegedly illegal sale of a radio frequency (see A4).
  • In May 2020, the parliament debated (and later passed) a contentious bill entitled “On Information Manipulation” that would, among other things, allow the government to block “false information” without court order (see B3).
  • The COVID-19 pandemic saw the security services start a “witch hunt” for rumors on social media platforms. The parliament also passed restrictive amendments penalizing such rumors (see B2 and C2).
  • A bombshell corruption investigation touched off street protests in late 2019. In apparent retribution, the journalists behind the corruption investigation were sued and subjected to physical attacks and cyberattacks (see B8, C3, C7, and C8).

A Obstacles to Access

The overall internet penetration rate continued to grow during the coverage period. However, the COVID-19 pandemic underscored the longstanding access issues in rural areas. The authorities briefly disrupted connections in the vicinity of clashes between security forces and supporters of a former president in August 2019. The ICT sector was rocked by allegations of corruption in the sale of radio frequencies used by mobile operators.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 3.003 6.006

Access to the internet continues to expand, with the overall penetration rate reaching 88.3 percent in 2019, according to State Communication Agency (SCA) statistics.1 As of December 2019, there were 5.7 million internet users out of a population of 6.2 million: almost 15 percent more than in 2018. However, the reliability of the SCA’s data on internet penetration rates has been called into question by some analysts. The number of internet users identified by the SCA is based on data from service providers.

Kyrgyzstan’s 2019 mobile penetration rate, estimated at 162.5 percent by the SCA, was significantly higher than its overall internet penetration rate.2 Third-generation (3G) services are available to much of the country. Fourth-generation (4G) services continued to expand during the coverage period, with one operator (Nur Telecom) claiming in January 2020 that its 4G network reached 97 percent of the population.3 Fifth-generation (5G) technology remains on the horizon.

Despite being more readily available, mobile internet connections are slower and of lower quality than fixed ones. According to May 2020 data from Ookla, the average download speed on mobile internet connections was just 18.18 Mbps, compared to 35.77 Mbps on fixed-line connections.4 Kyrgyzstan lags behind neighboring Kazakhstan in terms of average speeds but compares favorably to other Central Asian countries.

In 2018, the Digital Central Asia and South Asia (CASA)–Kyrgyz Republic project came into effect.5 Funded by the World Bank, it is developing digital infrastructure and public electronic services in Kyrgyzstan. The project, which aims to provide 60 percent of the population with broadband internet via nearly 400 miles of fiber-optic links in five years, is ongoing.

Internet connections in rural areas rely on vulnerable infrastructure from the state-owned internet service provider (ISP) KyrgyzTelecom. In March 2019, the Issyk-Kul region was disconnected for 13 hours after a KyrgyzTelecom fiber-optic cable was intentionally damaged.6

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 2.002 3.003

In recent years, the average price of an internet connection has decreased, becoming more affordable for much of the population. Prices offered by ISPs in Bishkek, the capital, where the information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure is well-developed and competition is greater, are lower than in rural areas. Additionally, the quality of connections is better in the capital than in rural areas, where the majority of the population lives (see A1).1

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a monthly entry-level fixed broadband subscription cost 8.3 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita in 2019, while a monthly mobile broadband plan offering 4 GB of data cost just 2.9 percent of GNI per capita.2 The monthly price of a 2 Mbps fixed broadband subscription in Bishkek was 517 soms ($7.40) in 2020, which is affordable for much of the population.3 The monthly price for the same subscription in the rural Batken region was 614 soms ($8.79).4

The development of mobile networks increasingly provides a viable alternative to fixed-line broadband internet connections. According to 2020 research by the UK-based company Cable, Kyrgyzstan has the third-least expensive mobile data rates in the world, with the price for 1 GB of mobile data averaging $0.21.5

In March 2020, as COVID-19 began to spread in Kyrgyzstan, the government requested that service providers refrain from disconnecting subscribers who could not pay their bills for three months. Reportedly, not all companies heeded this request.6 Many service providers did give their subscribers zero-rated access to official and educational resources during the pandemic.7

The World Bank has observed digital divides in terms of geography, gender, and language (most online content is in Russian) in Kyrgyzstan.8 Ongoing access issues were laid bare by the pandemic. Many schoolchildren could not participate in distance learning programs because they could not reliably access the internet or did not own internet-enabled devices such as smartphones—meaning that they were effectively excluded from the education system.9 In May 2020, the Ministry of Education and Science announced that 30,000 students did not have smartphones and therefore could not communicate with their teachers.10

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 4.004 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 5 to 4 after fixed and mobile internet connections were apparently intentionally disrupted in and around Koi-Tash village during clashes between security forces and supporters of former president Almazbek Atambayev in August 2019.

The government periodically attempts to increase its control over the internet. Using security or economic issues as pretexts, officials or members of parliament sometimes call for the centralization of the country’s internet infrastructure. Their initiatives seldom gain traction. One of the latest initiatives was an April 2019 draft regulation that would oblige ISPs to install special equipment for monitoring internet traffic, ostensibly to enforce tax laws. However, the draft named the State Committee of National Security (SCNS) as the body that would oversee the equipment. The resolution also failed to explain the equipment’s functions, although one anonymous official claimed that it would have allowed the SCNS to shut down the domestic internet.1 In May 2019, the Ministry of Economy stated that it was rewriting the regulation to remove the SCNS’s involvement.2 There were no further discussions of this initiative during the coverage period.

ISPs are not required to use government-owned channels to connect to the international internet, though getting their own channel can be challenging, as it requires permission from the Border Control Service. Kyrgyzstan’s 10 major ISPs operate international internet connections via Kazakhstan and China. In the past, websites blocked in Kazakhstan3 and Russia4 (Kazakhstan connects to the international internet through Russia) were also blocked in Kyrgyzstan, though these issues have not been reported recently. Chinese filtering does not affect access to web content in Kyrgyzstan.

During clashes on August 7 and 8, 2019, when special forces attempted to arrest former president Almazbek Atambaev, both fixed and mobile internet connections were throttled in the area around the village of Koi-Tash, where the clashes took place. However, mobile connections worked intermittently during the disruption.5 Notably, service providers stated that they hadn’t throttled connections intentionally, blaming “network congestion” instead.6

There are three internet exchange points (IXPs) in Kyrgyzstan: two managed by a telecommunications industry group, the Association of Telecommunications Operators,7 as well as one controlled by the Kyrgyzstani branch of the Internet Society (ISOC).8

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 4.004 6.006

Though there are no direct obstacles for ISPs and mobile service providers seeking to enter the market (besides getting licensed, a formality), they must still confront several indirect barriers. One is the high cost of building ICT infrastructure. Existing ISPs are not obligated to share their infrastructure, and there is no cap on the prices they can charge for renting out bandwidth. Another is the obligation to install surveillance equipment on all communications networks, which increases start-up costs (see C5).1

The telecommunications sector is relatively liberalized and competitive compared to other countries in the region; however, the state-owned KyrgyzTelecom remains the largest ISP, with a fixed broadband market share of about 60 percent.2 There are nine other major ISPs, some of which have their own international internet channels and all of which are privately owned.

There are four mobile service providers offering data services: Beeline, Megacom, Nur Telecom (operating under the brand “O!”), and KT Mobile.3 Nur Telecom claims to be the leading operator in terms of market share.4 Megacom was nationalized in 2010 amid political upheaval. In August 2019 mobile operator KT Mobile (a subsidiary of KyrgyzTelecom operating under the brand “Salam”), started offering services using Megacom’s infrastructure as a virtual operator.5 The company’s debut was preceded by a scandal involving the revelation that its executives (one of whom was Prime Minister Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev’s nephew) were drawing exorbitant salaries. Subsequently, these executives stepped down.6 As of December 2019, KT Mobile had just 1,200 active subscribers.7

In May 2020, the director of the SCA and other regulatory officials, two SCNS officers, and a deputy from the television company AlaTV were detained on corruption charges in connection with the allegedly illegal transfer of a radio frequency. In March 2020, Beeline had purchased AlaTV for $1.8 million, securing the company’s 200 MHz frequency (which was designated for TV broadcasts) in the transaction. Beeline then repurposed that frequency for 4G services with the SCA’s approval. In the past, such frequencies have been auctioned off by the state for between $10 million and $25 million.8 Upon learning of the deal, lawmakers lamented the loss of state revenue and accused Prime Minister Mukhammedkaliy Abylgaziyev of complicity.9 While denying the charges, Abylgaziyev took a leave of absence in May 2020 and resigned the next month. Beeline also denied any wrongdoing. The head of the Association of Telecommunications Operators claimed the sale of the frequency was legal and questioned lawmakers’ assessments of lost revenue.10

There are no obstacles to providing free and open internet access through Wi-Fi hotspots.11

  • 1. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Инструкция о порядке взаимодействия операторов электросвязи и операторов мобильной сотовой связи с государственными органами Кыргызской Республики, осуществляющими оперативно-розыскную деятельность [Instruction on cooperation of communication operators and mobile operators with state bodies of Kyrgyz Republic in operative investigative activities],” June 30, 2014, http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/96622?cl=ru-ru
  • 2. Chuyoung Park, Andrey Yershov, and Alexey Kobzev, “ICT Infrastructure Co-Deployment with Transport and Energy Infrastructure in North and Central Asia,” United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, September 3, 2019, https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/ICT%20Infrastructure%20Co-D…
  • 3. ”Обзор телеком рынка Кыргызстана: Фиксированная, мобильная и международная связь [Telecom Market Overview in Kyrgyzstan: Fixed, Mobile and International Communications,” Digital.Report, June 2, 2017, https://digital.report/kyirgyizstan-svyaz/
  • 4. “О компании [About the company],” О.kg, https://o.kg/ru/o-kompanii/istoriya-kompanii/
  • 5. “Сотовый оператор Salam продвигает тариф с бесплатными звонками на номера «Кыргызтелекома» [Mobile operator Salam promotes plan with free calls on KyrgyzTelecom numbers],” Economist.kg, October 21, 2019, https://economist.kg/2019/10/21/sotovyj-operator-salam-prodvigaet-tarif…
  • 6. “В "КТ Мобайл" снова сменился директор. Им стал Мирлан Кубаталиев [The new director in “KT mobile” has changed again. It’s Mirlan Kubataliev],” Kaktus Media, February 03, 2020, https://kaktus.media/doc/405253_v_kt_mobayl_snova_smenilsia_direktor._i…
  • 7. “У «КТ Мобайл» сегодня 1200 активных абонентов, это приравнено к нулю по нынешним меркам, - ФГИ ["KT Mobile” has 1200 active subscribers now, it’s practically zero for now – Fund of the State Estate],” Today.kg, December 19, 2019 “, https://today.kg/news/177782/
  • 8. Catherine Putz, “Kyrgyz Prime Minister Steps Down Amid Telecom Scandal,” The Diplomat, June 17, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/kyrgyz-prime-minister-steps-down-amid-t…
  • 9. Bakyt Toregeldu uulu, “В КР разгорается новый коррупционный скандал. При чем тут премьер-министр? [A new corruption scandal flares up in the Kyrgyz Republic. What does the prime minister have to do with it?],” Kyrgyz Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty , June 12, 2020, https://rus.azattyk.org/a/30624993.html
  • 10. “Оценка частот в миллиарды сомов не имеет никакого разумного основания — Куренкеев. [Estimation of the frequency cost to several billion doesn’t have reasonable base – Kurenkeev],” Akchabar. May 29, 2020, https://www.akchabar.kg/ru/article/opinion/ocenka-chastot-v-milliardy-s…
  • 11. State Communication Agency, “Положение о лицензировании деятельности по использованию радиочастотного спектра [Regulations on the licensing of activities on the use of the radio frequency spectrum],” https://world.nas.gov.kg/images/Poloj_RCHS-18.docx
A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 1.001 4.004

The regulatory bodies that oversee service providers do not always operate in a free and fair manner. The State Committee of Information Technologies and Communication (SCITC) was created in 2016, assuming many of the regulatory functions previously performed by the SCA.1 The SCA was absorbed as a department under the SCITC. During the coverage period, the SCITC improved its partnerships with the private sector and civil society experts, in a welcome break with past practices. However, the same period saw the head of the SCA and the deputy chair of the SCITC arrested on corruption charges (see A4).

The SCITC’s responsibilities include developing ICT policy, governing the ICT sector, and facilitating the sector’s development. The committee also issues licenses for ISPs, sets standards, and ensures those standards are followed. The scope of the committee’s activities depends on the direction of its head, who must be nominated by the prime minister and approved by the parliament before taking office. Committee heads from the private sector have tended to push reforms forward, while those from a government background have been more resistant to change. Institutional memory is also limited, as incoming SCITC heads usually change all key staff.

B Limits on Content

Extremist content continues to be blocked in Kyrgyzstan. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the SCNS also attempted to force users to delete content reflecting poorly on the state’s response to the virus. The parliament debated and (after the coverage period) passed a censorious bill regulating “false or uncredible information.” While a number of high-profile demonstrations were coordinated online this coverage period, protest organizers faced harassment from state and non-state actors.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 4.004 6.006

The authorities continued to engage in disproportionate and arbitrary blocking of online content, largely reflecting official concerns about extremism. The government and the judiciary’s broad application of anti-extremism laws have impacted various websites hosting user-generated content. While popular social media platforms are freely accessible, the authorities are examining methods for censoring individual pages on these platforms.

In 2019, authorities blocked more than 100 websites and 300 accounts on social media platforms for either extremism or promoting drug use, according to the prosecutor general’s office.1 A list of blocked websites maintained by the private ISP Megaline, however, includes some websites that do not seem to fit into the categories outlined by the authorities, like video or audio hosting sites such as the University of Pennsylvania’s online library.2

A series of court decisions in 2017 led to the blocking of a number of websites, including the music and podcast streaming platform SoundCloud, for hosting “extremist” content. The action against SoundCloud specified that all SoundCloud files—regardless of their authorship—can no longer be distributed or stored.3 A request for information submitted by the online news website Kloop revealed that the blocking request came from the prosecutor general’s office. The courts have ordered blocks on several subdomains of Blogger, LiveJournal, and WordPress; some ISPs that do not utilize deep packet inspection (DPI) technologies were forced to block all subdomains that share the blogs’ internet protocol (IP) addresses.4

Courts have also ordered the blocking of URLs that link to specific content on Facebook, the Russian social media platform Odnoklassniki (OK), Twitter, and YouTube.5 However, these orders were not carried out due to the technical challenges associated with blocking individual pages on social media platforms by URL.

Also in 2017, courts ordered the blocking of the Internet Archive and JustPaste.it in their entirety under an anti-extremism law. The Internet Archive, which offers access to billions of deleted webpages, was apparently blocked for allowing local users to bypass restrictions on extremist content normally inaccessible in the country. Some users speculated that the decision was related to a deleted article available on the site that criticized the award of a government contract to a Czech company.6 JustPaste.it is a widely used text publishing tool that inadvertently became popular with extremist movements as a means to spread propaganda.7 The website was still blocked as of May 2020, while the Internet Archive was not.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 2.002 4.004

The government does not often force outlets to remove content. The law does not oblige publishers or hosts to remove any content except for material that relates to extremism or terrorism. Journalists who work online have occasionally removed political content under threat of violence from unknown actors (see C7).

In 2019, the government did not issue any content removal requests to Facebook,1 Twitter,2 or Google.3

However, censorship can occur through other means. In April 2020, a doctor was allegedly pressured by his employer to remove a tweet criticizing the quality of the personal protective equipment (PEE) issued to him amid the COVID-19 pandemic.4 He subsequently deleted his entire Twitter account, but not before posting a forced apology. Other social media users who complained about PPE or the response to COVID-19 pandemic in the country in general online were reportedly visited by agents from the State Committee for National Security (SCNS) and warned “not to aggravate the situation.” In some cases, these users subsequently published public apologies that the SCNS insists were not forced.5

In January 2019, the Supreme Court set a disturbing precedent when it ordered media agency AKIpress to remove an online video of a press conference that was found to offend the “honor and dignity” of factory owner Elena Bulatova.6 In the past, powerful individuals have used defamation lawsuits to secure court orders for the removal of unflattering content (see C2).

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 2.002 4.004

Court orders are often used to block websites and remove content in Kyrgyzstan. The courts justify blocking sites, such as the Internet Archive and SoundCloud, under Article 315 of the criminal code, which prohibits extremist materials. These are expansively defined under the Law on Countering Extremist Activity as anything that stokes “ideological, political, racial, national, or religious hatred or enmity.”1 The prosecutor general’s office can also issue blocking and content removal requests to courts. The reasons for blocks are indicated in the court materials, which are only shared with the parties involved and not the public. Thus, in most cases, it is almost impossible for civil society to ascertain why a website was blocked and if the decision was proportional. Furthermore, the appeals process for challenging blocking orders is only open to the owner of the web resource being blocked or their official representative.

In April 2020, a parliamentary deputy registered a bill aimed at countering disinformation entitled “On Information Manipulation,” which immediately drew condemnation from domestic and international watchdogs.2 Borrowing heavily from Russian legislation,3 the bill envisioned a blanket ban on the dissemination of “false or uncredible information” and would mandate that “owners” of websites and social media accounts “immediately restrict or prohibit access” to such information upon notification by a special state body and without a court order.4 To facilitate this mandate, the bill would de-anonymize website administrators and social media account holders (see C4) and require that service providers retain user data, to be made available to authorities upon request, for up to six months (see C6).5 Reporters Without Borders called the bill “radical” and warned that it could “lead to abuses and to acts of censorship,”6 while local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Adilet declared that it represented a gross violation of the constitutionally protected right to free expression.7 Despite protests,8 the parliament passed the bill in June 2020, after the coverage period.9 Later, in August 2020, President Sooronbay Jeenbekov declined to sign the bill, sending it back to the parliament for revisions.10

In January 2020, political party Uluu Kyrgyzstan and local NGO Kyrgyz El announced the collection of 25,000 signatures in support of a bill regulating online content to protect children from harmful information.11 The draft was formally registered in parliament in May 2020 but did not advance any further during the coverage period.12 The bill would subject putatively harmful online content containing obscene language, denying “family values,” and more, to “state control and examination” to ensure that it is safe for children to consume. A comparison by FackCheck.kg found that, in many places, the bill is identical to comparable legislation already in effect in Russia.13 An earlier version of the bill was introduced in February 2019 and drew criticism from the NGO Adilet, which stressed that it could be used to violate freedom of expression.14

The Ministry of Justice’s official site, which hosts the official list of banned extremist and terrorist materials,15 contains outdated information and does not offer a full picture of website blocking. Compounding this lack of transparency, only a few ISPs such as Megaline publish lists of blocked sites and display a descriptive page when these sites are reached.

While ISPs are not directly liable for the content on their networks, they can lose their licenses if they fail to carry out a court order to block content.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 3.003 4.004

Self-censorship exists online to a certain degree, primarily as a result of government restrictions on inciting hatred. All posts on online forums are strictly moderated to limit hateful content, and online journalists, bloggers, and everyday users generally try to avoid issues concerning ethnic relations. Other laws may increase self-censorship, such as those governing defamation. Newly passed amendments to the code of violations penalizing the dissemination of false information amid the COVID-19 pandemic (see C2) and forced apologies from those accused of sharing “fake news” (see B2) could have chilling effects and increase self-censorship.

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 3.003 4.004

Online platforms, such as forums and social networks, have been used to manipulate public opinion. Trolls hired by various actors influence online discussions by expressing favorable or unfavorable views on politicians and political issues. According to Oxford University researchers, political and private actors in Kyrgyzstan use fake Facebook accounts to promote narratives favorable to the accounts’ backers.1 Research by FactCheck.kg from July 2018 exposed a small-scale network of fake Facebook accounts supporting President Jeenbekov and another group supporting his rival, former president Atambayev.2

Troll activity substantially intensified after the publication of an investigation into the allegedly corrupt dealings of a cross-border criminal network connected to former customs official Raimbek Matraimov in late 2019. Analysis by several sources revealed that about 80 percent of the social media profiles that publicly supported Matraimov after the publication of the investigation were fake.3

Various online media outlets, some of which are owned by politicians or powerful business interests, are also used as tools of political influence. The television channel affiliated with opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev, named “September,” came under pressure during Atambayev’s presidential term and actually ceased broadcasting in August 2017, becoming an online-only outlet.4 The television channel affiliated with Atambayev himself, named “April,” came under pressure after Atambayev moved into opposition. In August 2019, the government raided the offices of April, ostensibly in connection with a corruption probe into Atambayev, restricting journalists’ access to the studio and forcing them to broadcast exclusively over the internet.5

News outlets, including those that publish online, are sometimes given editorial guidance by their owners. According to the US State Department, in Kyrgyzstan, “Some news outlets instructed their reporters not to report critically on certain politicians or government officials.”6 These instructions are sometimes the result of government pressure. No such instructions were given during the COVID-19 pandemic, which online media outlets freely reported on. However, quarantine measures imposed during the pandemic restricted journalists’ ability to actually report (see C1).

Legislative amendments proposed by the SCNS in March 2020 (see B6) would prevent media outlets from interviewing alleged “terrorists” without permission from a state official. The representative on freedom of the media for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the proposed changes.7

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 2.002 3.003

There are no regulations imposed by the government that negatively impact users’ or online media outlets’ ability to publish content online. Media outlets are not required to register with the government. However, according to IREX’s 2018 Media Sustainability Index, “Government pressure skews the advertising market,” which was not especially large to begin with.1 A 2019 report from Central European University (CEU) notes that media outlets are seldom able to generate the cash flow to assure their independence. The CEU report singled out just four outlets: “Kloop.kg (which finances itself mostly through grants and income generated from paid trainings for journalists), Kaktus.kg [sic] (surviving thanks to grants and advertisements), and 24.kg and Super.kg (that both base their business model fully on advertising).”2

Legislative amendments proposed by the SCNS in March 2020 (see B5) would permit the authorities to close down media outlets that knowingly or unknowingly publish information about extremist or terrorist organizations.3

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 3.003 4.004

There are relatively few popular websites devoted to political or social issues. Most blogs are in Russian, though there are less popular Kyrgyz-language blogs. The internet, and in particular social media platforms and messaging applications, have become an important source of alternative information for users,1 but the main participants in online communities tend to encompass the wealthier, urban segments of the population who can afford consistent internet access (see A2).

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 6 to 5 after the administrator of a Facebook page used to coordinate anticorruption protests was arrested on questionable charges, and a Telegram group used to organize a march against violence was hijacked.

Digital activism remains limited in Kyrgyzstan, despite the availability of online mobilization tools. The government does not place any restrictions on these tools or their use.

A peaceful march for women’s rights on March 8, 2020 resulted in police detaining dozens of women’s rights activists because of provocations by far-right counter-protestors.1 Both the march and the counterprotest were coordinated via social networks. This incident was followed by a march against violence on March 10,2 which was organized in a Telegram group. However, this group was hijacked by hackers who threatened the march’s organizers before deleting the group altogether (see C8).

On November 25, 2019, a peaceful rally against corruption under the slogan #ReАкция took place in Bishkek, prompted by an investigation by Kloop, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), and Radio Azattyk (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz service) into a $700 million money-laundering scheme orchestrated by criminals affiliated with former customs official Raimbek Matraimov. The rally was organized through Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram and drew about 1,000 people who demanded real reforms and actions from the government based on the investigation.3 A second rally, #ReАкция2.0, was also coordinated via social networks.4 This second protest took place on December 18, 2019 and denounced the Matraimov family’s lawsuits against mass media (see C3).5

Relatedly, in November 2019, an online campaign entitled “Я/Мы Автандил Жоробеков” (I/We Are Aftandil Zhorobekov) commenced after Aftandil Zhorobekov, the administrator of a Facebook page involved in organizing the #ReАкция rally, was arrested (see C3). The campaign denounced the actions of the law enforcement officials involved in Zhorobekov’s arrest. It was inspired by the campaign in support of Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police in Russia on fake evidence.6

C Violations of User Rights

Several questionable arrests by the SCNS and a punitive defamation suit, as well as physical attacks and cyberattacks alike, defined the coverage period. A COVID-19 contract tracing app developed by the government sparked privacy concerns after a video showed an unidentified person gaining unauthorized access to users’ personal data.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 3.003 6.006

The constitution, which was last amended in 2010, contains several legal protections applicable to online activities. However, these constitutional protections are limited in practice by a judiciary that lacks independence from the executive branch.

Article 31 of the constitution guarantees the right to freedom of thought, expression, speech, and the press.1 Article 29 protects privacy, including private communications shared by phone or electronic methods, and forbids the collection or dissemination of confidential information without the subject’s consent.2

Corruption among judges, who are generally underpaid, is also widespread, hindering the fairness of decisions in freedom of expression cases and other litigation. In March 2018, a group of activists, lawyers, and human rights defenders began to compile a blacklist of judges they believe to be corrupt or biased. Several people who claim to have been victimized by biased rulings and judicial corruption joined the activists.3

The government’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic did not exempt journalists (except for those working on behalf of state-run outlets) from strict quarantine measures.4

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 2.002 4.004

There are several vaguely defined laws that are used to penalize legitimate online activities.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the parliament amended the code of violations in April 2020 to introduce fines for disseminating false information “aimed at violating the rule of law, or actions that violate public order and peace of individuals” during a state of emergency or when martial law has been declared.1

In October 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the prosecutor general’s office must obtain the approval of the president before filing lawsuits in defense of his or her “honor and dignity.” The ruling further required that such defamation lawsuits must only seek nonpecuniary damages.2 The ruling followed a series of defamation lawsuits filed by the prosecutor general’s office in 2017 against media outlet Zanoza for libeling then-president Atambayev in articles that compared him to well-known authoritarian rulers and implied that he was corrupt.3 The suits resulted in a fine of 12 million soms ($172,000) against Zanoza and the court-ordered removal of the allegedly defamatory articles.4

In April 2018, following criticism from journalists, member of parliament Dastan Bekeshev withdrew legislative amendments to the civil code first introduced in 2017, which would have mandated fines of 20,000 soms ($286) or more for online content deemed to discredit a citizen’s “honor,” “dignity,” or “business reputation.”5 In 2011, the parliament decriminalized libel, aligning the law with the 2010 constitution.6 Defamation is only a criminal offense in cases of insult against judges and other participants in legal proceedings or desecration of the state, state symbols, and state institutions.7

The new criminal code, which entered force in January 2019, criminalizes inciting ethnic, national, racial, religious, or interregional hostility (Article 313, previously Article 299-1), and imposes five to ten years imprisonment for violations.8 The criminal code also criminalizes the possession of “extremist materials” with the intent to distribute (Article 315, previously Article 299-2) with up to five years in prison.9 Previously, possession of “extremist materials” was illegal regardless of intent. Critics have long argued that these provisions are vulnerable to abuse. In some cases, the government has sought to apply these anti-extremism laws to restrict nonviolent political speech.

Several laws also impose disproportionate restrictions on freedom of expression. Notably, the Law on Countering Extremist Activities, last amended in 2016,10 criminalizes public expressions of approval of and justification for extremism or terrorism, raising concerns about possible restrictions on legitimate expression online. The law also defines the scope of extremist materials that Article 315 (previously, Article 299-2) of the criminal code prohibits.11

Under a 2014 amendment to the criminal code, those found guilty of disseminating “knowingly false messages about the commission of crimes” faced steep fines and prison sentences of up to three years.12 In the 2019 criminal code, the maximum sentence under this provision, Article 344, was increased to five years.13 Even though, according to case law, this provision does not apply to mass media, the SCNS has nevertheless used it to harass online media outlets (see C3).14

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the SCNS’s practice of charging users and news media under Article 334 of the criminal code—despite the fact that this provision does not apply to online activities—and the punitive defamation suits former customs official Raimbek Matriamov filed against several news media.

Users increasingly faced civil or criminal penalties for protected online expression during the coverage period.

In April and March 2020, the SCNS detained dozens around the country for knowingly spreading false information online about COVID-19.1 In some cases, users were arrested under Article 334 of the criminal code, although local civil society organizations have raised doubts about the legal applicability of this provision to COVID-19-related mis- and disinformation.2 However, the NGO Adilet observed that, “as a rule, citizens are warned of criminal liability for disseminating false information without specifying a specific article of the criminal code.”3

In March 2020, the SCNS opened a case under Article 344 of the criminal code against internet news agency The Asia Times, which published information about two victims of COVID-19—information the SCSNS asserted was untrue.4 In 2015, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court had ruled that Article 344 did not apply to mass media.5 Consequently, it is unclear how the SNCS can pursue legal action.

In March 2020, a blogger posted several videos to his Instagram account in which he responded in an obscene manner to people who criticized his donations to the government’s COVID-19 relief effort. Later, he was put in remand, accused of inciting national hatred under Article 313 of the criminal code for insulting the Kyrgyz people.6

In February 2020, popular blogger Elmir Sydymanov, alias Sydyman, was arrested for inciting national hatred under Article 313 of the criminal code. He had published a video on his Instagram page in which he stated that he disliked people from the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan, which he called underdeveloped. Experts from the Media Policy Institute did not consider his words to rise to the level of inciting national hatred,7 but he was nevertheless detained for 10 days before being released under house arrest.8 State prosecutors are seeking a six-year prison term in his case.

Article 313 is sometimes used to punish more clear-cut instances of dangerous speech. In February 2020, Facebook user Timur Bolchurov faced pretrial prosecution under Article 313 of the criminal code based on his comments on a post about interethnic clashes in the Korday district of neighboring Kazakhstan. In his comments, he used the phrase “cut them like sheep” in relation to the ethnic Dungan minority.9

In December 2019, former customs official Raimbek Matraimov filed a defamation suit to protect his honor, dignity, and business reputation against media outlets 24.kg, Kloop, and Radio Azattyk as well as Radio Azattyk reporter Ali Toktakunov after Kloop, the OCCRP, and Radio Azattyk published an investigation alleging that Matraimov was involved in laundering $700 million. 24.kg republished the investigation. Matriamov sought 15 million soms ($215,000) in damages from 24.kg, 12.5 million soms ($179,000) from Kloop, 22 million soms ($315,000) from Radio Azattyk, and 10 million soms ($143,000) from Toktakunov. The defendants’ bank accounts were frozen when he lodged his suit.10 Under pressure from civil society, Matraimovs’ lawyers later asked the court to unfreeze the defendants’ bank accounts while leaving the original suit intact.11 The punitive damages sought by the proceedings attracted controversy on their own, leading the OSCE representative on freedom of the media12 and the US House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee13 to publicly express concern. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted negatively to these statements, accusing both the OSCE and the US of meddling in Kyrgyzstan’s domestic sphere.14 In January 2020, 24.kg published an article stating that it could not prove that Matraimov was linked to the alleged money laundering scheme, after which Matraimovs’ lawyers dropped the suit against the outlet.15

In November 2019, just before the #ReАкция rally (see B8), Aftandil Zhorobekov, the administrator of the popular Facebook group “БеспределKG,” (MayhemKG) which is devoted to discussions of arbitrary governance in Kyrgyzstan, was arrested and detained for calling for mass protests and inciting national hatred. Reviewing screenshots provided by the SCNS to justify the charges against Zhorobekov, FactCheck.kg found only two comments that could meet the standard of inciting national hatred, and they were written by users other than Zhorobekov.16 The users were not even questioned by the SCNS. In December 2019, Zhorobekov was released under house arrest,17 and in May 2020 he announced on Facebook that SCNS was no longer pursuing his prosecution.18

In February 2019, a man was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting hatred on WhatsApp after posting a video of a fight between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek people.19

In February 2018, Temir Bolotbek, a Bishkek-based university professor, was also arrested for inciting hatred online after posting a combative critique of Soviet-era architecture on Facebook that the authorities deemed insulting to Russians.20 In May 2019, Bolotbek was acquitted, but prosecutors appealed the decision to a higher court.21 In October 2019, the Supreme Court upheld Bolotbek’s acquittal.22

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

There are few restrictions on anonymous communication. Websites are not required to register, although web hosting providers must be licensed. Encryption software is freely available, and real-name registration is not required to post content or comment online. However, in 2014, the government issued a new regulation requiring service providers to sell new SIM cards only after they have been registered. Previously, SIM cards had to be registered within a year of purchase. This regulation makes it more difficult for individuals to use mobile devices anonymously.1

The much-criticized draft bill “On Information Manipulation” (see B3) would require all website owners and social media account holders to publicly identify themselves via their surname and an email address.2

In June 2018, the SCITC submitted a bill that would register the serial numbers of mobile devices used in public discussion.3 The bill did not advance.

  • 1. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Об утверждении Правил оказания услуг подвижной радиотелефонной связи [On approval of regulations of mobile telecommunication services],” http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/96097?cl=ru-ru#p1
  • 2. Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Закон Кыргызской Республики О манипулировании информацией [Law of the Kyrgyz Republic About manipulating information],” http://www.kenesh.kg/uploads/media/default/0001/58/140520105616_%D0%BF%…
  • 3. State Committee for Information Technologies and Communications of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Об утверждении Правил «Идентификации мобильных устройств связи на территории Кыргызской Республики» [On adoption of the rules ‘Mobile communication devices identification on the territory of Kyrgyz Republic’],” http://www.ict.gov.kg/index.php?r=site%2Fdoc&cid=12&did=100
C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

State surveillance of internet activities often infringes on users’ right to privacy. The state’s surveillance apparatus is modeled after Russia’s System for Operational Investigative Activities (SORM). Every ISP and mobile service provider is obliged to install SORM-compliant equipment on their ICT infrastructure to allow the authorities unfettered access to internet traffic and subscribers’ information (see C6). If a provider does not comply, its license can be cancelled.

These regulations could enable mass surveillance without judicial oversight, and there has been evidence of abuse since they were implemented. For example, in 2016, telephone conversations between leaders of the People’s Parliament opposition group were leaked online—conversations in which they were apparently plotting a coup. The politicians were subsequently arrested.1Also in 2016, telephone conversations between other opposition figures discussing potential political upheaval were leaked. Those involved were accused of attempting to forcibly seize power.2

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, authorities developed an app for contact-tracing people who tested positive for the virus. The app, called STOP COVID-19 KG, is not mandatory, although Eurasianet reports that “many are being pressured into loading it on their phones.”3 In April 2020, a video appeared on YouTube which showed an unidentified person accessing personal data collected by the app, raising serious privacy concerns.4

In early 2019, the SCITC started the first phase of its “Safe City” project by installing video cameras on roads in Bishkek.5 The tender for the first phase was won by the Russian company Vega, which also supplies equipment to the Russian military and intelligence services. A Chinese company has reportedly supplied facial recognition technology that can be utilized together with existing video cameras.6 The data from Safe City cameras is not safe and secure. In December 2019, photos from these cameras thought to show the former head of State Registry Service and his deputy spread across the internet. An investigation into the leak is still in progress.7

The parliament passed a personal data law in 2008 that provided for the establishment of an authority for personal data protection. In practice, however, the law has not been effectively implemented; the personal data protection authority has not yet been established. In 2017, new amendments to the 2008 law were passed to more effectively protect personal data.8

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 2.002 6.006

By law, service providers are required to aid the government in monitoring users’ communications. In 2014, the government adopted a resolution requiring ISPs and mobile service providers to make their infrastructure compliant with the latest iteration of SORM (see C5).1 The resolution further requires providers to store subscribers’ metadata for up to three years and to allow authorities direct, real-time access to their communications networks without notification and oversight, even from prosecutors. In addition, service providers must purchase and update equipment at their own expense to ensure compliance with SORM.

The much-criticized draft bill “On Information Manipulation” (see B3) would mandate that all ISPs and mobile service providers store data “on the facts of the reception, transmission, delivery and (or) processing of voice information, written text, images, sounds or other electronic messages from Internet users and information about these users for six months.”2 This data must be turned over to the authorities, apparently without a court order.

  • 1. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Инструкция о порядке взаимодействия операторов электросвязи и операторов мобильной сотовой связи с государственными органами Кыргызской Республики, осуществляющими оперативно-розыскную деятельность [Instruction on the procedure for interaction of telecommunication operators and mobile cellular operators with state bodies of the Kyrgyz Republic carrying out operational-search activities,]” June 30, 2014, http://cbd.minjust.gov.kg/act/view/ru-ru/96622?cl=ru-ru
  • 2. Parliament of the Kyrgyz Republic, “Закон Кыргызской Республики О манипулировании информацией [Law of the Kyrgyz Republic About manipulating of information],” http://www.kenesh.kg/uploads/media/default/0001/58/140520105616_%D0%BF%…
C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 3.003 5.005

Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 after journalists involved in the investigation into former customs official Raimbek Matriamov were intimidated and, in at least one case, physically assaulted.

In general, there is not a significant level of violence or harassment against ICT users in Kyrgyzstan, though some isolated incidents do occur.

On March 3, 2020, the office of online outlet Politklinika was broken into. The intruders stole some documents and a hard drive.1

In January 2020, Bolot Temirov, the editor-in-chief of FactCheck.kg, was attacked near his office and was violently beaten by three assailants. The attackers also took away Temirov’s phone. The assault happened just after Temirov had published a story about the lavish lifestyle of the Matraimov family (see C3).2 Five days later, police arrested four men suspected in the attack.3 The investigation into Raimbek Matraimov overall generated a wave of pressure in Kyrgyzstan; 12 journalists involved (not all of whom live in Kyrgyzstan) faced some form of targeted harassment, including defamatory social media posts and threatening phone calls. Several RFE/RL editors were warned “that their close relatives in Kyrgyzstan should change their addresses.”4

A crew of the online news outlet NewTV was attacked by an unknown woman in December 2019 while filming the dismantling of illegally built construction projects. The woman damaged the crew’s video camera and escaped in the car that attempted to hit the journalists. Later, police managed to arrest a suspect.5

In November 2018, Sanrabia Satybaldieva, an investigative journalist and founder of the “Malina TV” YouTube channel, was stabbed by an unknown assailant.6 Satybaldieva refused to submit a case to the police, and why she was attacked is unclear.

In September 2018, Bolot Temirov was attacked by an unknown assailant while he was filming a house said to belong to the former head of SCNS, Adil Segizbaev. When the assailant realized he was being filmed, he quickly disappeared.7

Also in September 2018, 19-year-old student and singer Zere Asylbek was harassed after posting a music video on YouTube. The song, which contains lyrics promoting women’s equality, and the music video, which features women in revealing clothing, stoked outrage. Asylbek received death threats online.8

Online hate speech toward feminists as well as LGBT+ people in Kyrgyzstan is commonplace.9

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 after independent news websites faced massive DDoS attacks and Telegram accounts belonging to civil society actors were hacked.

During the coverage period, the volume of politically motivated cyberattacks substantially increased.

The Telegram group used to coordinate the March 10 march against violence (see B8) with more than 600 participants was hacked. Participants were threatened and the group was deleted.1

On December 17, 2019, after the publication of the investigation into the alleged criminal activities of former customs official Raimbek Matriamov and his family, virtually all of the most popular independent news media were disabled by DDoS attacks. The incident affected Economist.kg, Kaktus.media, Kloop, Knews.kg FactCheck.kg, Politklinika Sokol.media, Today.kg, and VB.kg. In addition, MediaLaw.kg, a website affiliated with FactCheck.kg, was hacked by actors traced to China.2 The authorities declined to investigate this incident.3

In November and December 2019, there was a wave of Telegram hacks affecting some NGOs and human rights defenders. The hackers attempted to break into Telegram accounts by intercepting two-factor authentication codes.4

During the events surrounding the arrest of former president Atambaev, 24.kg fell under a DDoS attack.5

On Kyrgyzstan

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

See More
  • Global Freedom Score

    38 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    56 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes