By Christopher Carson
On June 25th, the Parliament of Kyrgyzstan approved a controversial piece of legislation titled “On Manipulating Information”, designed to combat disinformation spread online. The bill received widespread support in Parliament, with only ten members of the body voting against it. It was passed under suspicious circumstances: late at night, with only 30 of the 120 members of Parliament present, and many members voting on behalf of their colleagues who were not present.
The goal of preventing disinformation is arguably a worthy intention. The spread of false or misleading information can have particularly harmful impacts in the midst of a global pandemic, which has infected over 4,000 Kyrgyz residents and killed dozens. International tech firms like Facebook and Twitter have taken a stance against the spread of disinformation by flagging and labeling manipulated or misleading content posted on their platforms. This method can be an effective way of fact-checking claims posted by users, which could be (intentionally or unintentionally) inaccurate.
The Kyrgyz Parliament’s proposal does not do this. Disguised as an effort to prevent factually inaccurate and harmful information from spreading online, the new law is a blunt attack on journalism and speech within Kyrgyzstan, a weapon that can be utilized against political dissidents.
What exactly does the bill prevent? According to the bill, an unspecified body will be given the authority to block or shut down any website they deem dishonest. No guidelines are provided for how the authorities would determine whether a website is factually accurate or not, and what extent of dishonesty is necessary in order to warrant the shutdown of the site. The vague enforcement methodology provided in the bill opens the door to an outright assault on investigative journalists, hoping to uncover corruption in Kyrgyzstan.
Other vague components of the bill would prove to be incredibly difficult to enforce. The bill mandates that the owner of a website must list their email address or contact information where they can receive legal documents on the website, so Kyrgyz authorities can take legal action if necessary. However, it does not define who exactly the owner of a website is. This could refer to an individual or company that purchased the domain, or the largest shareholder of a company that manages the site.
Without clear guidance on what needs to be enforced, the law leaves all ambiguities up to the impulses and whims of those currently in power. On his blog, Kyrgyzstan-based researcher Christopher Schwartz poses the hypothetical idea of a law which makes it illegal to think about the law. Within that scenario, “strict enforcement of the law is impossible, as enforcement is, again, an intentional act, motivated, again, by the thought of the law, which would be illegal.” While the reality in Kyrgyzstan might not reach that extreme, it is impossible to know to what extent the recent Parliamentary bill would be enforced.
According to an analysis by the Open Society Foundation, the complete elimination of misleading or inaccurate information online, what the current bill aims to accomplish, is an overly ambitious target. Similar attempts have been made by China, Iran, and Russia, but have proved unsuccessful. Faced with limited technical resources and a vast expanse of information, Kyrgyz authorities would have no option but to selectively enforce the law, where they see fit.
Gulshat Asylbayeva, one of the architects of the bill, explained that the intention of the legislators was to protect the dignity of individuals smeared by disinformation spread online. Other members of Parliament that supported the bill explained that it was intended to prevent mean comments about politicians from being posted on social media. Each of these explanations from supporters of the legislation frames the concept as a suppression of subjective opinions about individuals, and not in terms of preventing objectively invalid information from spreading online. At a time when the spread of objectively untruthful information (such as claims about COVID-19) poses huge risks for society, the prioritization of preventing rude comments about politicians on social media is alarming.
On June 29, protests against the bill broke out in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, despite the country’s ban on large public gatherings (imposed due to COVID-19). While these rallies demonstrated dissent against the bill, the protesters were primarily young urbanites from the capital, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the rest of the country, according to Shirin Aitmatova, a former member of the Kyrgyz Parliament. It is unclear how much of an impact these protests will have of the future of the legislation.
The spread of inaccurate and misleading information on the internet is a dangerous global phenomenon, and deserves action and attention; however, the proposed new law in Kyrgyzstan is not the answer. While international firms have taken actions to flag misleading claims posted on their platforms, the Kyrgyz proposed bill gives a green light to authorities seeking to limit political dissent through the suppression of speech. Ambiguities in the legislative text allow space for authorities to selectively enforce the law for their own political benefit. The law will not prevent the spread of disinformation that its proponents claim to have intended.
Christopher Carson is a research analyst based in Washington, DC. He holds a BA in geography and political science from UC Berkeley and an MA in international affairs from the George Washington University. From 2016 to 2017, he was a Boren Fellow in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, studying Russian and Kyrgyz. His background includes positions with the US Chamber of Commerce and think tanks in Washington, DC, Malaysia and Kyrgyzstan.
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