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Kyrgyz Journalist Flees Country After Writing About Hate Speech


Kyrgyz journalist Ulugbek Babakulov (file photo)

A journalist has just fled Kyrgyzstan to avoid being arrested, and the Moscow-based website for which he works, which has been posting articles about Central Asia for nearly two decades, has been ordered blocked by a Kyrgyz court.

Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security (SCNS) is charging Fergananews journalist Ulughbek Babakulov with inciting ethnic hatred for one of his articles, which the website posted on May 23.

Babakulov and Fergana say they were doing the country's security services a favor by revealing material that was being posted on Facebook that did constitute inciting ethnic hatred.

In his article, Babakulov notes there was a fight, involving knives, in the Nooken district of Kyrgyzstan's southern Jalal-Abat Province on May 18. Several people were injured.

"It became clear," Babakulov wrote, that "those who were hurt were representatives of the Kyrgyz [people], and the suspects in this were Uzbeks."

Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations in southern Kyrgyzstan are a sensitive issue. A very sensitive issue.

Interethnic Violence

The interethnic violence between the two peoples in 2010 is rarely discussed publicly, but it is never far from the minds of the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov, himself Kyrgyz, translated Kyrgyz-language posts on Facebook from Kyrgyz in the Jalal-Abat area after the May 18 fight.

As translated by Babakulov, these posts calling for violence against Uzbeks would indeed seem to qualify as inciting ethnic hatred.

Posts suggest "exterminating" Uzbeks; "burning them alive," a particularly troublesome call since many people were beaten and set on fire during the 2010 violence; and calls for expelling all ethnic Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov said in the article that his purpose for writing it was to alert Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies to these posts.

Others did not see it that way.

On June 1, deputy Muradyl Mademinov addressed parliament saying, "I consider this journalist's [Babakulov's] article to be a provocation."

Mademinov called on law enforcement to investigate the article and the author and said those who stoke interethnic conflict should be stripped of their citizenship.

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, interviewed Babakulov on June 2 and the journalist said: "I just exposed the problem, I didn't create it."

Six People Detained

The SCNS did investigate the offensive posts on Facebook and by June 6 said it had identified several of the people responsible for the offensive posts. It also clarified that the May 18 incident was between people from the same village -- one person had cut four others with a knife and fled, and was later apprehended near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.

There was no mention of ethnicity.

On June 9, the SCNS press service said it had detained six people on charges of inciting ethnic hatred but provided only the initials of those held.

Five of the six sets of initials match names in Babakulov's May 23 article and most appear to be women.

On June 9, the SCNS filed a criminal case against Babakulov and the Oktyabr Court in Bishkek ordered that the Fergana website be blocked.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a statement that same day. CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nine Ognianova said: "Lawmakers and pro-government media have tried to smear Babakulov as a traitor and a villain for warning about the dangers of nationalism."

Ognianova added that "we call on Kyrgyzstan to cease harassing the journalist immediately and to restore access to his outlet, the website Fergana."

Fergana released a statement on June 11, complaining that the website had not been informed about a court hearing to block the site.

'Enemies Of The People'

The statement also said in recent weeks that in "the pages of print media in Kyrgyzstan and on main television channels there were many articles and reports in which our correspondent and our agency were named as 'enemies of the Kyrgyz people.'"

By June 12 it was clear Babakulov was out of Kyrgyzstan.

Babakulov posted a message on his Facebook account saying that he had ceased working for Fergana of his own volition.

Babakulov said in the May 23 article that he was seeking to bring the social-network posts to the attention of the authorities.

However, comments in the article -- particularly those suggesting that security services were occupied with "following political opponents of the president" and that "when people criticize the president on the Internet" security services seem to act quickly to find and detain the culprits while they ignore nationalist comments on the same social networks -- might have more to do with the problems Babakulov faces than his translations of hate posts on the Internet.

Kyrgyz authorities have not reacted well to criticism from the media in recent months and several media outlets and their journalists are facing charges that some call politically motivated.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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