U.S. lawmakers have called on Kyrgyzstan authorities to lift restrictions on Radio Azattyq after renewed efforts by authorities to have it permanently closed.
The Ministry of Culture appealed to a court in the capital, Bishkek, to have the media outlet terminated. The order is related to September 2022 coverage by the outlet about an armed conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, which the ministry said included “ambiguous material against national interests.”
In October 2022, authorities blocked access to the media outlet’s website for two months over the report. That order was extended in December, with the ministry at the time saying the block will remain in effect until the specified material is removed. Authorities also froze the media outlet’s bank account.
The ministry said that Radio Azattyq’s actions are in violation of the country’s media, which prevents propaganda of war, violence and cruelty, national and religious discrimination, and intolerance to other peoples and nations.
Radio Azattyq is an affiliate of VOA’s sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said that after studying the material, the network concluded that journalism standards were not violated.
"Pressure on independent media casts a shadow on Kyrgyzstan's democracy," Fly said in a statement. He added that the broadcaster would use “all possible legal means to continue our activities in Kyrgyzstan.
U.S. Senators Bob Menendez and Jim Risch, who are chair and ranking member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, called on Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov to stop putting pressure on Radio Azattyq and other independent media.
In a statement published Friday, the senators said that the action violates international standards of freedom of speech as well as the country’s constitution.
The senators said “the decisions to block Radio Azattyk websites indefinitely and freeze the service’s bank account jeopardizes [Kyrgyzstan’s] international reputation as a beacon of free speech in Central Asia.”
The statement highlighted President Japarov's commitment to protect human rights and the rule of law and called on him to "create an opportunity for independent mass media so that Kyrgyz journalists can work freely."
In response, the president’s press secretary, Erbol Sultanbaev, stated that "Kyrgyzstan is a free, democratic country with all the conditions for the full-fledged activity of independent media."
Sultanbaev said that the only requirement is that everyone observe the current laws.
Kyrgyz media analysts see the blocking of Radio Azattyq as "a deliberate step taken by the government to strengthen the autocratic regime in Kyrgyzstan.”
In a joint statement, local journalists said that the broadcaster had reported only on information distributed by the official state agencies related to the conflict.
"The lawsuit alleges that the host of the program received comments from both sides. In this case, the behavior of the editors is worthy of the professional standards of the work of journalists," the statement read.
In an interview with the Kloop news agency, media expert Gulnura Toralieva said that by putting pressure on Azattyq, the government reduces the space for pluralism, hides the shortcomings of its activity and tries to intimidate other media.
"If we look at the steps taken by the government, it seems that actions for freedom of speech will be much more difficult. Demanding freedom of speech is becoming more and more difficult," Toralieva was cited as saying in Kloop.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also condemned the ministry request as “a black mark in the history of freedom of speech in the country."
"The Kyrgyz government should withdraw its application to close Azattyq Radio, cancel the ban on the publication's website, open the bank account and stop all pressure on the mass media," Gulnoza Said, who is the nonprofit’s Europe program coordinator, said in a statement.
In its annual global report released in January, Human Rights Watch said that “despite promises to uphold human rights and freedoms, Kyrgyz authorities restricted critical voices and civil society.”
The report cited the blocking of Radio Azattyq and two other media outlets in 2022 and said that press freedom “came under siege” with criminal cases filed against independent journalists and bloggers.
A hearing related to Radio Azattyq’s case is due to take place in district court in February.
This article originated in VOA’s Uzbek Service.