The IPI global network demands the immediate release of 11 journalists detained yesterday in Kyrgyzstan following media publications critical of the country’s interior minister.

On Tuesday, January 16, authorities detained journalists collaborating with several independent publications, namely Temirov Live, Ayt Ayt Dese, and Archa Media. On the evening of January 17, the 11 media workers were placed in pre-trial detention for a period of two months, in relation to a criminal case opened for alleged “calls for mass riots”, which foresees penalties of five to eight years in prison for those convicted. 

Kyrgyzstani media listed the arrested journalists as Makhabat Tajibek Kyzy, Sapar Akunbekov, Azamat Ishenbekov, Saipidin Sultanaliev, Aktilek Kaparov, Tynystan Asypbekov, Maksat Tajibek Uulu, Joodar Buzumov, Jumabek Turdaliev, Aike Beyshekeeva and Akyl Orozbekov.

Authorities claimed that unspecified articles contained calls for the use of violence. On his Facebook page, Temirov Live founder Bolot Temirov indicated that the arrests may have been prompted by a recent investigation by Temirov Live into the misuse of public funds by Interior Minister Ulanbek Niyazbekov. He noted that all of the arrested journalists were current or former collaborators of Temirov Live and rejected the claim that those detained had engaged in “calls for mass riots”.

“In reality, the arrests are for our professional activities, for our investigations,” Temirov told IPI.

“Of course, there were no calls [for riots]. [Authorities are] equating [alleged] discreditation [of an official] with calls [for riots]. Which is absurd, since the criminal code clearly states that there must be a call to violence, and there is nothing like this in our publications. There are facts about mansions [owned by] the minister of interior, the fuel business of his uncle, as well as complaints against law enforcement officers.”

He added: “There is a tendency towards clamping down on freedom of speech by President Sadyr Japarov and his people, with the participation of security forces and the State Committee of National Security, as well as support from prosecutors and the judiciary.”

Temirov also said that all those detained were asked about his current country of residence, and that the arrest of Makhabat Tajibek Kyzy, his wife, was an attempt to coerce him into ceasing his activities. A dual Kyrgyz-Russian citizen, Temirov was deported from Kyrgyzstan in 2022, in a move condemned by IPI and other organizations.

In addition to the arrests, security forces searched the offices of Temirov Live in Bishkek, confiscating all electronic devices used by the media outlet’s team, Temirov told IPI. Searches were also carried out at the homes of several other journalists, independent outlet reported. According to Kloop, which quoted the Kyrgyz Ministry of Interior, security forces seized a total of 162 devices from various journalists throughout the day.

The series of arrests and searches was accompanied by statements attacking the media made by representatives of President Japarov. Deputy minister of culture and ex-journalist Marat Tagayev claimed yesterday that journalism in Kyrgyzstan had “degenerated” and that journalists “exaggerate the information they publish”. “Recent events are not [a form of] pressure,” Tagayev said in an online discussion aired by local media outlet Azattyk.

Additionally, presidential advisor Cholponbek Abykeev insinuated that the detained journalists had “confused freedom of speech and democracy with anarchy”, claiming that Kyrgyz society needed to “learn [..] to express opinions in a respectful manner.”

“The mass jailing of journalists in apparent response to their coverage of public officials is a serious attack on press freedom, and the latest sign of Kyrgyzstan’s growing intolerance for critical journalism”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen. “It is absurd to equate reporting on possible wrongdoing – which is a core function of journalism in any democracy – with instigating riots.”

“We call on Kyrgyz authorities to immediately release the journalists in custody and to end their pattern of harassing journalists and independent media outlets.”

Long seen as a beacon of hope for freedom of the press and civil liberties in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan has become more dangerous for journalists and political activists since the election of President Sadyr Japarov in 2021. In September, authorities put forward politically motivated accusations to block access to, a major independent news outlet which was shortlisted for the IPI-IMS Free Media Pioneer award in 2023. Currently, courts in Kyrgyzstan are examining a lawsuit filed by the country’s Ministry of Culture, which demanded Kloop’s liquidation.

Azattyk, the Kyrgyz branch of the U.S. Congress-financed media corporation RFE/RL, faced a similar legal ordeal throughout 2023, enduring access blocks lasting nearly a year before Kyrgyz authorities backed down on their earlier decision, in July last year.

In parallel, the country’s parliament has continued to examine a law on “foreign representatives” largely inspired by Russian legal norms on “foreign agents” which have dealt a serious blow to Russian independent journalism, especially since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.