Ulugbek Babakulov, a Kyrgyz journalist, is facing a public campaign for publishing nationalist comments taken from Kyrgyz social media. Source: Youtube.
This article originally appeared in Russian at Fergana News, a leading source of information on Central Asia. We are grateful for their permission to translate and republish it here.
On 27 May, Kyrgyzstan’s main television channel ran an eight-minute item with the provocative title of “Fireraisers”. The programme accused Ulugbek Babakulov, a correspondent for our news agency, of inciting racial hatred. It then went on to call Fergana “tendentious”, and demand that our site be blocked in Kyrgyzstan.
The trigger for this story was an article we published on 23 May concerning ultra-nationalist material on Kyrgyz social media. The programme accused us of “disseminating material of an inflammatory nature” and trying to present Kyrgyzstan as “a fascist state populated entirely by nationalists”.
The news item included several extracts from Babakulov’s article, suggesting that Babakulov should face “strict criminal justice”, and opinions on the subject from “experts”. The latter were united in their view that journalists should “avoid controversial subjects” and not “drag up some sort of analysis from social media sites”.
"Fireraisers", the programme broadcast on Kyrgyz television, is only the latest in a series of attacks on the press in the country.
According to Sadyrbek Cherikov, a journalist and political analyst, Babakulov’s piece was “not on the level of serious journalism” and “a mistake”. And Kairat Osmonaliyev, a doctor of law, also has a clear position on the subject: “the only appropriate response to the appearance of such material in the media… is the closure of the agency and complete non-recognition on the territory of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.”
The people speaking on the programme, however, openly focused their attention on Babakulov’s ethnicity, suggesting that he is not “a true Kyrgyz”. Ainura Arzymatova, a historian, claimed that “people like Ulugbek Babakulov are simply enemies of Kyrgyzstan. He presents himself as having Kyrgyz roots, but it seems to me that he speaks out against the Kyrgyz state and the Kyrgyz people.”
“This isn’t the first time that I have been attacked and accused of incitement for raising the question of growing nationalist tendencies in Kyrgyzstan”
“This isn’t the first time that I have been attacked and accused of incitement for raising the issue of growing nationalist tendencies in Kyrgyzstan,” says Babakulov. “Two years ago, in May 2015, I commented on the fact that our main state TV channel was broadcasting a series of programmes with the provocative title of “Lions and Jackals”. In it, Abdrakhman Alymbayev, a poet, public figure and the head of our national Writers’ Union, compared the Kyrgyz to lions, and members of our ethnic minorities – Uzbeks, Uigurs and so on – to jackals.
“In the wake of the programme, representatives of various nationalist organisations filed a statement with the GKNB [Kyrgyzstan’s state security service] accusing me of incitement to racial hatred: in other words, before I went and translated the programmes into Russian, everything was absolutely fine. But I stirred up public opinion by raising the subject. The GKNB gave me a warning: my comments on the programmes contained ‘moments that could offend certain members of the majority titular ethnic group’.
“The current situation is no different. I talked about nationalist comments under nationalist posts on Facebook. All I did was translate them from Kyrgyz into Russian and present them to the public so people could see what these members of the majority titular ethnic group were writing about. And now, once again, they are trying to accuse me of incitement to racial hatred.”
One of the posts quoted by Ulugbek Babakulov which calls for persecution of Kyrgyzstan's Uzbek minority. Image via Fergana/Facebook. Our editor-in-chief Daniil Kislov sees no “incitement” in Babakulov’s article: “the subject of inter-ethnic relations is still highly sensitive in Kyrgyzstan,” he says, “but you need to bring it into the open, not sweep it under the carpet. The government, however, is determined not to notice the Nazi propaganda pouring out of Kyrgyz language media and social networks. But quote the same words in Russian language media and they’re immediately offended, as though we were washing our dirty linen in public.
“It’s worth mentioning that over the last year, and especially now in the run-up to the country’s presidential election, Kyrgyzstan’s government has been increasing both propaganda and judicial pressure on its opposition and media, and international human rights campaigners have been taking notice,” Kislov continues. “And the pattern never changes: first, there’s a mass public brainwashing programme, to prepare the ground. And once the clichés have flooded the TV schedules, a scapegoat in the form of a journalist or politician is found and sent to prison.
“These situations, these ‘strikes’ are nothing new for us. We went through a similar process a few years ago, when parliament blocked our site and accused us of ‘incitement’,” says Kislov. “It happened soon after the events of June 2010, when inter-ethnic riots broke out in the south of the country, and the Uzbek minority was the biggest victim. We tried to take as neutral and truthful a stance as possible in our reports, looking at events from all sides but giving priority to the voices of the victims. This went down very badly with the ‘patriots’ among both the public and the authorities. So I see these new attacks on Ulugbek as a personal challenge and a declaration of war against our agency – one of the few independent media platforms in Central Asia. And it will be no surprise to me if our journalist or our platform ends up in court.”
“With all the high-profile lawsuits against well-known journalists, leading media platforms and opposition politicians, it’s becoming clear that one aim of the government’s propaganda campaign is to silence our voice as well”
Kislov believes it is quite obvious that the hostile TV news item was ordered after another article by Babakulov, on the personality and career of Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister and potential next president Sooronbay Jeenbekov, who was appointed by current president Almazbek Atambayev.
“With all the high-profile lawsuits against well-known journalists, leading media platforms and opposition politicians, it’s becoming clear that one aim of the government’s propaganda campaign is to silence our voice as well,” says Kislov. “It’s particularly crucial for the government to do this before the presidential election, to purge our country’s media space once and for all.”