Questions over former journalist’s role in Kyrgyzstan’s customs scandal

Evidence suggests a former investigative journalist, and former openDemocracy contributor, ran a secret Facebook campaign in support of a powerful family in the Central Asian state.

Editors of oDR
2 October 2020, 12.01am
Elnura Alkanova at a campaign rally in September 2020
Source: Telegram

Over the past year, evidence suggesting that Kyrgyzstan’s border officials helped run a smuggling scheme worth more than $700 million has brought people out onto the streets in the country. Trust in politicians, already low, has fallen yet again.

Shortly before the second part of the investigation into the scam was released in November 2019, Aierken Saimaiti, the money launderer-turned-whistleblower behind the investigation, was murdered in Istanbul – a shocking reminder of the stakes for people who come forward to expose alleged wrongdoing.

Saimaiti had shared documents that supported a joint investigation by Radio Azattyk – the Kyrgyz service of the US government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Kyrgyz media outlet Kloop. The main journalist behind the investigation, Ali Toktakunov, has received threats to his life.

One of the alleged beneficiaries of this scheme in Kyrgyzstan – though they fiercely deny the allegations against them – are the Matraimov family and in particular Raimbek Matraimov, a former deputy head of the country’s state customs service, who is considered a ‘kingmaker’ figure in the country’s elite. In response to the investigation, the Matraimov family filed a libel suit against Azattyk and Kloop, claiming that their “honor, dignity, and business reputations” had been damaged. In June 2020, a parliamentary commission concluded that the hundreds of millions of USD ‘withdrawn from the country is not related to Kyrgyzstan, since these were the funds of Kyrgyz and foreign private entrepreneurs’. Many view the commission’s results with doubts.

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Raimbek Matraimov | Source: YouTube

As Kyrgyzstan prepares for parliamentary elections on 4 October, the Matraimov family are widely linked to the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan political party, who are running a series of high-profile candidates for office. Among them is Elnura Alkanova, a former investigative journalist who wrote for openDemocracy, among other outlets, in 2018 and 2019.

From journalist to politician

Between April 2018 and March 2019, Alkanova, a freelance contributor, wrote six feature articles for openDemocracy, covering topics such as the policing of social media in Kyrgyzstan, a high-level corruption investigation into allegations of embezzlement at Bishkek power plant and the webcam model business in the country.

In October 2019, oDR nominated Alkanova for an international anti-corruption excellence award worth $250,000 run by the Qatari state, which she won jointly with a Ugandan transparency organisation in December 2019.

In May-June this year, the oDR team chose to end the professional relationship and asked Alkanova to return her press accreditation, after it became clear that she was entering politics as a parliamentary candidate with the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party.

Concerns over this relationship, however, started earlier. Journalist Ali Toktakunov published the first part of his contraband and money-laundering investigation on Radio Azattyk in May 2019; in response, Alkanova, still in her public role as an investigative journalist, raised questions over the findings.

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May 2019: RFE/RL journalist Ali Toktakunov explains his investigation

Alkanova released, for example, her own short film criticising what she saw as technical problems in the investigation, suggesting that the documents that supported the claims of corruption were fake. During the summer of 2019, Alkanova continued to criticise the investigation, and Radio Azattyk in particular, on her Facebook page, drawing attention to allegations of the station’s bias in favour of ex-president Almazbek Atambayev.

The Saimaiti interview that wasn’t

Ulugbek Babakulov, a Kyrgyzstani journalist now living abroad, has told openDemocracy that he was in contact with Elnura Alkanova between October and December 2019 - and that they discussed interviewing Aierken Saimaiti and later participation in a Facebook campaign in support of Matraimov.

According to Babakulov, in October 2019 he and Alkanova discussed a proposal to travel to Turkey and record an interview with Aierken Saimaiti, the whistleblower behind the joint investigation which implicated, among others, Raimbek Matraimov. Babakulov left Kyrgyzstan in 2017 after the country’s state security service began an investigation into his journalistic work for “inciting ethnic hatred”. (He wrote an article about this for openDemocracy in 2017.) He now lives in France, where he received asylum.

“She asked me to read the investigation and then said she had a proposal: could I go to Istanbul and meet Aierken Saimaiti? He would give me an interview about how [Raimbek] Matraimov was not involved in these matters,” Babakulov says. “She told me she was working for Raim Matraimov, and that she believes him.”

According to Babakulov, Alkanova claimed that Saimaiti had agreed to deny on camera that he had ever had any dealings with Raimbek Matraimov.

openDemocracy could not independently confirm Babakulov’s claim about the motivation for the interview.

When contacted via email, Alkanova stated that “everyone wanted an interview with Saimaiti. I had been searching for [Saimaiti] a long time. I looked for any contacts or mutual acquaintances, I asked Raimbek Matraimov whether he could help me find him. At that moment Babakulov got in touch, and I asked him whether he wanted to interview Saimaiti, if I could find him and we could make contact. I couldn’t do the interview myself, as I was in the final month of pregnancy and couldn’t fly.”

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Ulugbek Babakulov | Source: Facebook

Babakulov claims that the idea was to then place the exclusive interview with Saimaiti at a reputable outlet – at the time, his whereabouts were unknown to the public.

A source at the Central Asian media organisation in question confirmed that Babakulov did contact them regarding the Saimaiti interview, but they rejected the idea, and the plan to interview went no further.

The timing of these events appears to correspond to a statement by Klara Sooronkulova, former Constitutional Chamber judge and current leader of the Reforma party. Speaking on a Facebook livestream on 29 September, Sooronkulova claimed that Alkanova acted as an intermediary between her and Matraimov since the “summer of 2019”.

“Beginning in the summer, we started negotiating via Elnura Alkanova to invite him [Matraimov] to a broadcast, but then he went abroad… and the invitation dragged on from summer until October, when the meeting happened,” Sooronkulova said.

When asked by openDemocracy about her relationship to Matraimov, Alkanova said: “I’ve known Raimbek Matraimov for a long time. We started communicating actively in August 2019, sharing opinions on politics. I think he’s been demonised and people wanted to neutralise his influence on purpose. And I wanted to act as a bridge between him and his opponents.”

‘Team of trolls’

Following the proposal to interview Saimaiti, Babakulov says that he and Alkanova remained in touch, and they later discussed another job – working for a Facebook campaign that would support Matraimov’s public position by attacking his opponents online. The journalist shared with openDemocracy social media messages that he says he exchanged with Alkanova, including voice messages. Although openDemocracy could not independently verify these messages, the audio messages sound very much like Alkanova’s voice.

These messages suggest that, immediately after the ‘Plunder and Patronage in the Heart of Central Asia’ joint investigation was published in November 2019, Alkanova coordinated Facebook activity in support of Matraimov - approving the social media targeting of public figures in Kyrgyzstan reacting to the investigation, and spreading messages that sought to deflect attention from Matraimov towards other Kyrgyz politicians.

Against a backdrop of anger on social media, Babakulov says he was meant to write articles and comments under a fake account, and provide content for pages on Facebook that would mock leading politicians and members of Kyrgyz civil society in relation to the uptick in public activity.

“She said she was putting together a team of trolls that would work for Matraimov,” says Babakulov, who claims there were at least five people on the team. “She asked that we create a negative media atmosphere around all those protests that were demanding a probe into the people mentioned [in the joint piece by Azattyk, OCCRP and Kloop] as being linked to the Matraimovs… as well as mocking the human rights defenders, activists and journalists who supported the investigation.”

“‘You know how to write mocking articles,’ she said, ‘you can write humorous stuff’ – and I was supposed to do this not under my own name, but a pseudonym,” Babakulov said.

For instance, a few days after the joint investigation was released, a high-profile protest was held in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, demanding the authorities step up the fight against corruption and arrest Matraimov - a high point in the public reaction to the investigation.

Voice messages and correspondence from this day suggest how Alkanova sought to coordinate the social media reaction. “FactCheck is saying 1,250 people are there, but the other media, Kaktus, 24.kg, they’re all going on about three or four thousand. Can you make a screenshot and highlight these numbers, and troll them!” said one of Alkanova’s voice messages, dated 25 November 2019 - the day of the protest - allegedly received by Babakulov. “We need to mock these outlets and say, look, this is how they are exaggerating.”

After searching a popular politics-focused Facebook group in Kyrgyzstan (“Kompromat KG”), openDemocracy found a post to this effect by the account that Babakulov claims he used, as well as another similar post on a separate Facebook page (“El - Taraza”) apparently under the social media team’s control.

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Posts by an account controlled by Ulugbek Babakulov on "KompromatKG" group

openDemocracy also found evidence that the same fake account wrote posts that sought to draw attention away from Raimbek Matraimov towards other corruption stories after the investigation was published on the same “Kompromat KG” group on Facebook.

“I don’t know whose idea it was, Alkanova’s or Matraimov’s,” Babakulov says about the social media campaign. “Whether Alkanova was only the coordinator in this, I don’t know.”

We also examined a smaller Facebook page (“El - Taraza”) that is referenced in the correspondence between Babakulov and Alkanova, and found posts and videos that accused Radio Azattyk of manipulating evidence in regard to the investigation, questioned the motives of Saimaiti and Azattyk management, and presented information in support of Matraimov throughout this period. On 24 November, for example, Alkanova wrote: “What’s going with El Taraza and Osminog [another page associated with the campaign]? We need to bring them some audience. The last publication on them was on Thursday.”

Over the past year, some observers have noted the emergence of anonymous social media pages and campaigns that seek to manipulate and whip up public opinion in Kyrgyzstan. Babakulov says he did not actively participate in the campaign, and claims his activity was limited to reposts and occasional comments under a fake account. “This made Alkanova angry the whole time. ‘Why aren’t you writing anything?’ she would ask. ‘Why aren’t you creating content?’” he says.

Despite having been allegedly promised a $1,000 monthly salary for this trial period, Babakulov says he did not receive any payment as he “consciously did not work well” in order to “understand what was happening inside the team”. In her response to openDemocracy, Alkanova says that Babakulov asked for financial help at this time, and she interceded on his behalf with Matraimov’s supporters who paid him money. openDemocracy could not independently verify either claim. Alkanova also stated that Babakulov continued to contact her between February and June 2020.

“I don’t think they were professionals,” Babakulov says when asked about the social media team referenced in his correspondence with Alkanova. “These were mostly unknown people, they didn’t have much experience.”

“She had no one who could make content for her [...] If she had counted on me, then I was the one who should have made the content, but I found the idea disgusting, and simply didn’t do anything.”

In correspondence with openDemocracy, Alkanova said that “I never ran any pages, and I still do not run a single Facebook page. I’ve never worked with fakes.”

Positive opinion

As Babakulov puts it, in the end “the project simply died”. Once it became obvious that the social media trolling strategy was failing to gain much traction in the aftermath of the investigation, Alkanova decided to change tack, he says.

The focus switched from countering Matraimov’s opponents to presenting the Matraimovs as benefactors through the work of their philanthropic foundation. By summer 2020, Alkanova was openly working for the Matraimov foundation, as her Facebook feed shared posts and livestreams of the organisation’s work in the fight against COVID-19. After going on maternity leave from Kyrgyzstan’s Channel 5 in October 2019, Alkanova said that she resigned from her job on 1 February 2020 as she “wanted to help the Matraimov charitable foundation”, claiming that she started publicly supporting Matraimov in March this year.

“I believe that fakes and buying opinions will never form positive public opinion,” Alkanova said, claiming that she has broken no ethical norms. “To make contact with society, you need to learn how to listen to society, create a dialogue with it.”

“I regret that I only started supporting him in public in March 2020, although I changed my opinion about him as soon as Azattyk published their fake investigation,” she said.

At the end of August, Alkanova figured in the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party list of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. In a speech at the recent party convention, Alkanova declared that she appreciates when people “simply tell the truth”. Whether or not she is elected to parliament this Sunday, her former readers and potential voters at the very least deserve to know the extent of her work for the Matraimovs.

Note from the editors: In this article, we raised questions about former journalist Elnura Alkanova’s relationship to Kyrgyzstan’s powerful Matraimov family. But it is clear that openDemocracy helped to legitimise Alkanova as an investigative journalist, which included the prestige and financial reward of an international journalism prize. After it became clear that Alkanova was running for parliament with the Mekenim Kyrgyzstan party, we audited her previous articles for openDemocracy in 2018-2019, but did not find signs of bias towards the Matraimovs. The editorial team at oDR is deeply sorry for our role in promoting Alkanova. oDR has always sought to promote high-quality, public interest journalism and, in this instance, it failed.

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