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Closing The Kloop: Kyrgyzstan's Media Crackdown Becomes Farcical As Leading Journalism Foundation Shuttered

Since Kyrgyzstan's revolution in 2010, Kloop has become one of the leading media outlets in the Central Asian country. (file photo)
Since Kyrgyzstan's revolution in 2010, Kloop has become one of the leading media outlets in the Central Asian country. (file photo)

BISHKEK -- During the last days of the authoritarian rule of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the newsroom of the independent Kloop news agency was hectic.

Kloop’s young journalists were frantically covering the historic events unfolding across the Central Asian nation. Founders Rinat Tuhvatshin and Bektour Iskender were reporting from Bishkek’s Ala-Too square, which was the scene of protests and deadly clashes.

In the political thaw that followed the revolution in 2010, independent media flourished and Kloop became one of the leading media outlets in the country.

Now, Sadyr Japarov, the current president and a former Bakiev ally, appears bent on reversing those gains.

Last week, in a trial decried by activists and lawyers as farcical, a Bishkek court issued a ruling to liquidate the Kloop Media Public Foundation, the parent organization of the Kloop news agency.

Despite the ruling and other growing threats to their profession, Kloop's reporters have vowed to continue their work.

“We will continue to talk about corruption, about reality, bad or good, so that people know what is happening in the country,” said Aidai Irgebaeva, a graduate of the Kloop foundation's journalism school and an editor for the website.

Trial By Farce?

Kyrgyzstan's civil society and free press have traditionally been the most vibrant in Central Asia. But that has changed under Japarov, who came to power in 2020 and has since overseen a deepening government crackdown.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Radio Azattyk, survived a shutdown attempt last year.

Last month, Kyrgyz police arrested 11 former and current reporters of the Temirov LIVE investigative group and its Ait Ait Dese project after searching their homes and offices on a charge of "calls for disobedience and mass riots" over the group's reporting.

Also in January, the State Committee of National Security (UKMK) briefly detained for questioning the director and two editors of the independent news agency after searching their homes and offices in a case of "propagating war" because of the outlet's coverage of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

The authorities have used various pretexts to target journalists and media outlets.

The Bishkek city prosecutor's office said the Kloop Media Public Foundation "has damaged the authorities' reputation through its reports critical of the government." Prosecutors said the basis for initiating the probe were inconsistencies between the organization's media activities and its charter.

Psychologist Veronika Terekhova, an expert witness called to support the prosecution’s case, called Kloop’s coverage of current affairs a “negative informational invasion,” and informed the court last week that “in a secular state, there should be no criticism of the authorities.”

Kyrgys state expert Veronika Terekhova
Kyrgys state expert Veronika Terekhova

Terekhova's statement drew reactions of disbelief on social media, even from seasoned observers of Kyrgyz trials.

So did the claim of another state expert, Zhanna Karaeva, who said media outlets reporting bad news -- as opposed to “entertainment content” -- were contributing to mental illnesses in the country.

State expert Zhanna Karaeva testifies in Bishkek.
State expert Zhanna Karaeva testifies in Bishkek.

“We used the full volume of our knowledge and experience,” said Karaeva, when pressed by Kloop’s legal team to explain the methodology she and her colleagues at the Republican Narcology Center used to reach their conclusions.

But if the trial offered plenty of punchlines, it was also an ominous confirmation of the increasing pressure on the independent media.

“In my opinion, this shows what awaits us in Kyrgyzstan in terms of freedom of speech in the next year or two,” said Irgebaeva, the Kloop editor.

Nevertheless, she said, “young media'' like Kloop, whose website has been blocked in the country since last year, will be better placed to navigate the repressive environment than television and radio stations.

'False Patriots'

Established in June 2007, Kloop is known for publishing reports on high-level corruption and providing training to Central Asian journalists on fact-checking and investigative techniques through the Kloop Media Public Foundation’s journalism school, whose students and graduates contribute to the site.

Kloop, Radio Azattyk, and the Center for Corruption and Organized Crime Research have collaborated on a series of investigations concerning graft in Kyrgyzstan.

The award-winning investigations focused on the systemic smuggling that has fueled political corruption in Kyrgyzstan.

One of the main targets of the investigation, an influential former customs official called Raimbek Matraimov, was subsequently placed on the U.S. Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the illegal funneling of hundreds of millions of dollars abroad.

Kloop’s groundbreaking journalism would not have been possible without the relative freedoms enjoyed by Kyrgyz journalists in the decade after the 2010 revolution.

Now, those freedoms are shrinking.

Parliament is expected to pass later this year separate laws on the media and noncommercial organizations that receive foreign funding, which experts say would make it much harder for media outlets to register and secure funds.

The Committee to Protect Journalists watchdog said in a statement that the February 9 verdict to shutter the Kloop Media Public Foundation “signals Kyrgyz authorities’ intent to wipe out an investigative reporting hub that has previously set the country apart from its authoritarian neighbors” -- a reference to Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (file photo)

In August, Japarov accused Kloop of writing "only negative things" in an interview with the state information agency.

Only days later, the Kloop news agency learned that the government was attempting to shut it down.

Japarov’s comments came soon after Kloop released an investigation that revealed the participation of associates of the president in the creation of a branch of an academy associated with the Spanish soccer club FC Barcelona -- a fact that Japarov confirmed but justified as a beneficial project with no costs to the state.

More recently, on February 7, Japarov gave another interview in which he denied that his administration was cracking down on free speech. He claimed that “false patriots” were using free speech to do “whatever came into their head.”

An early Russian translation of that interview also quoted the president complaining of “propaganda, aimed at developing people’s critical thinking,” adding that “this goes against the state, our mentality, and traditions.”

But after Kloop quoted the president on its Telegram channel, the interview was republished without Japarov’s comments about “critical thinking.”

Nurzada Tynaeva of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.
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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service

    RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service is an award-winning, multimedia source of independent news and informed debate, covering major stories and underreported topics, including women, minority rights, high-level corruption, and religious radicalism.

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