Kyrgyzstan has suspended a TV station, detained its director and questioned its journalists on accusations of incitement.
The State Committee for National Security (SCNS) says it has opened a criminal case into NEXT TV over posts on Telegram and Facebook in which an interviewee claimed Kyrgyzstan had agreed to provide military assistance to Russia in Ukraine.
The Kyrgyz Defense Ministry denied the claim. Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry also rejected the claim and said local media should base reporting on official government statements only.
Authorities arrested NEXT TV director Taalai Duishembiev on March 3 and later ordered that he be held in pretrial detention.
Duishembiev was accused of "inciting interregional hostility," according to his attorney, Akmat Alagushev.
"The channel's operations have been suspended, its director, Taalai Duishembiev, has been detained for two months, and staff interrogated by the officials," Alagushev told reporters.
The attorney said the media outlet had cited on its social media platforms the comments of a Kazakhstan official. The attorney also said he didn't think the station should have been stopped from broadcasting.
NEXT TV journalist Perizat Saitburkhan, whom authorities questioned, told reporters she had been asked about the media outlet's activities, funding and owner, Ravshan Jeenbekov.
Jeenbekov is an opposition politician who was twice jailed, including for alleged involvement in a deadly clash with security and supporters of a former president in 2019. Jeenbekov has denied the allegations in that case, which is ongoing.
In a comment posted to social media, Jeenbekov described the action against NEXT TV as a crackdown on press freedom.
"The SCNS wants to imprison not only Taalai, but all journalists, freedom of speech and the opposition," Jeenbekov wrote on Facebook.
He added that he had been under pressure for months to shutter NEXT TV.
Critics speak out
Kyrgyzstan's ombudsman and members of civil society criticized the action against the privately owned station.
Ombudsman Atyr Abdrakhmatova called on the SCNS to respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the media and on the judiciary to assess the measures taken against NEXT TV.
In a joint statement, Kyrgyzstan's media and civil society members also called for authorities to respect press freedom.
"We consider the action against NEXT TV as a continuation of the movement to suppress freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan," the statement said, adding that journalists from other outlets had previously come under pressure.
Media expert Daniyar Sadiyev criticized the decision to suspend the station while an investigation was in progress and said the harsh response suggested it might be political.
"It does not make sense to imprison or shut down a TV station without a court ruling in this case," Sadiyev told VOA.
Pointing out that the case was about a social media post, Sadiyev said that measures "should not have been so harsh."
"Therefore, it seems more of a political decision. The channel's staff also say they have been under a lot of pressure lately. This, of course, can be seen as a pressure on freedom of the press," Sadiyev said.
Presidential spokesperson Erbol Sultanbayev told the state-run Kabar News Agency that Kyrgyzstan "has and will continue to have freedom of speech."
"No one has restricted freedom of speech. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the dissemination of false information under the guise of freedom of speech on private television and other media is not allowed," Sultanbayev said.
Local journalists have reported being more vulnerable to threats, harassment and attacks for their work in recent years, including by government officials and law enforcement.
This story originated in VOA's Uzbek Service.