Will protests be enough to convince Kyrgyzstan’s president to veto a bill that would restrict freedom of speech online?
A bill that would give Kyrgyzstan’s authorities broad power to censor digital communication passed quickly through its third reading in parliament. Now the power to veto the bill or sign it into law rests with President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
The bill, officially titled “About the Manipulation of Information,” is less about regulating misinformation than it is about giving the government the authority and tools to crack down on digital dissent. Although misinformation – intentional or otherwise – presents a real problem around the world, the MPs who initiated the bill framed their motivation in terms of stopping “fakes” and “troll factories” from writing mean comments on politicians’ social media pages.
Bishkek-based legal clinic Adilet analyzed the bill’s various components, with their criticisms falling into three broad categories. First, Adilet pointed out that the bill’s objective (stamping out the spread of misinformation through digital channels) is not feasible. It will be expensive to create new agencies, hire and train a team of bureaucrats, and pay for sustained monitoring and enforcement.
Second, Adilet criticized the bill for only vaguely defining the problem and proposed policy solution. The bill does not outline what’s meant by “misinformation” and sidesteps the question of culpability. Is a social media user the “page owner” responsible for avoiding misinformation, or is the platform responsible? This further complicates the question of enforcement.
However, it’s likely that the vague definitions are the point of the proposed law. Indeed, the issue is not whether Kyrgyzstan’s government could actually monitor and enforce the law in a comprehensive manner, but rather that a flimsy regulatory framework is an effective tool for targeting dissenting voices, such as investigative journalists who shed light on massive corruption schemes or social activists who articulate demands for reform. Herein lies Adilet’s third criticism of the bill: legislation that so blatantly functions to censor dissent and restrict freedom of speech does not belong in Kyrgyzstan’s legal code.
The bill’s threat to free speech drove citizens to the street in Bishkek on June 29, four days after it was rushed through its second and third readings in parliament. About a thousand people gathered in central Bishkek for “Reaktsiya 3.0,” the third iteration of demonstrations that took place last winter in the wake of a bombshell investigative report that exposed the scale of corruption in Kyrgyzstan’s customs service and authorities’ subsequent attempt to silence the journalists who published the report.
Protesters taped a red X to their face masks and carried placards with a range of witty slogans: swear words obscured in Latin letters, demands that Jeenbekov veto the bill, dry jokes about needing to protest during a pandemic. The group marched to the White House from Erkindik Boulevard, realizing the street’s name through their chants (“erkindik” is the Kyrgyz word for freedom).
“A bunch of fake deputies can’t make us shut our mouths,” Urmat Djanybaev, one of the protest’s moderators, yelled out to the crowd. “Because of our passivity, we got a washed-up parliament.” Criticisms of the public’s passivity aside, the overall tone of the third Reaktsiya protest was optimistic. Speeches reflected a genuine belief in people power and its potential to push Jeenbekov to veto the bill.
It remains to be seen whether the demonstration drummed up enough pressure on the regime, however. In an interview with Vesti, former MP and leader of the civic movement Umut 2020 Shirin Aitmatova observed that there were fewer “ordinary people” at this rally compared to previous Reaktsiya protests. As with critiques of previous Reaktsiya protests, the concern is that dissatisfaction expressed in demonstrations in the capital and viral hashtags on social media do not reflect the views of the broader public.
Even if local media could demonstrate widespread disapproval of the bill, it seems doubtful that it would be enough to stop the assault on free speech. The bill passed through parliament with almost no opposition (which some claim is the result of bypassing quorum rules), and from an admittedly cynical strategic perspective, Jeenbekov does not have a meaningful political incentive to block it from becoming law.
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