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Kyrgyzstan: The Internet on Trial?

The ongoing trial of an ethnic Russian journalist accused of inciting racial hatred in a series of online articles may have profound implications for Kyrgyzstan's regulation of the Internet, as well as testing the neutrality of the country's moribund  judicial system.

Vladimir Farofonov is accused under article 299, section one, which applies a charge of causing “national, racial, religious or interregional enmity” via “means of mass information”. Under conditions of judicial impartiality, the case's outcome would probably hinge on the difficulty of proving Farafanov's articles correspond to the charge at all, given that Kyrgyz law makes no provisions for the Internet as “means of mass information”.

Nevertheless, given that local courtrooms are often slaves to overriding political moods, it is far from certain that proceedings will devote themselves to this technicality alone.

Further complicating a case described by CPJ as “politically motivated”, Farafonov himself, appearing at the opening of his trial on March 28 [ru] said that over 11 of the 16 articles that had been brought as evidence against him at the trial were not written by him, something state prosecutors, not generally known for their mastery of the web, will have difficulty in disproving.

Moreover, the idea that the offending articles were written by more than one person has even been put forward by opponents of the very works attributed to Vladimir Farafonov.

Jyrgalbek Turdukozhoyev, an influential former editor of Bishkek-based online news agency, Kabar.kg, launched  a written invective against “the Farafonovs” in the Kyrgyz-language press last year, then gave an interview to “Kyrgyz Ruhu” newspaper, later translated and published online, in which he explained the decision to pluralize his target:

“In my article, I was far from “assigning” the list of articles published under the signature V. Farafonov, to one author, because for me it was clear that behind [the articles] is a whole group of authors, weaving and carrying nonsense,” he said.

To summarize this strange situation, then: An ethnic Russian journalist, born in Kyrgyzstan, faces the possibility of imprisonment (up to five years according to article 299 section one of the Kyrgyz criminal code) for inciting racial enmity in articles published online. The journalist himself denies he is racist (he cites a part-Kyrgyz wife in his defence), denies that he is the author of most of the articles (and many of his accusers appear to agree with him), while his legal team denies that the Internet falls under the umbrella of “mass media”.

N.B If this appears to have a touch of farce about it, it still pales in comparison to the decision of a provincial court in the South of the country to sentence two Jehovas Witnesses to imprisonment as Islamic radicals in May last year…

The right to incite?

But what exactly has Farafonov (or people pretending to be him) done to offend the Kyrgyz state prosecutor that brought the charges against him? An article on Eurasianet.org attempted to frame the accusations against the journalist in the context of some of the openly insulting rhetoric contained in the pieces attached to his name:

“[The journalist's] writing will hardly help his case. In September 2010, Farafonov wrote on byeli parus…that only 20 percent of ethnic Kyrgyz are “modern humans,” while 80 percent are “stupidly stuck in the Asian middle ages.”

In an August 2011 article about the murder of a Kazakh tourist in Kyrgyzstan’s Issyk-Kul region, published by Centrasia.ru, Farafonov calls the Kyrgyz press covering the story “prisoners of political darkness,” trapped in “absolute stagnation” akin to an era of “early feudalism.” Labelling the murder an example of “elementary Kyrgyz hospitality,” the author’s scathing references to “primitive” rural Kyrgyz were condemned by Kyrgyz-language newspapers….”

Inflammatory? Certainly. Capable of causing inter-ethnic discord? Intangible. But much Russian-language media coverage of the Farafanov case has focused on the perceived one-sidedness in the application of article 299. A quick scan of gezitter.org [ru], which translates Kyrgyz-language print media into Russian, reveals no shortage of chauvinistic articles [ru] that might be better suited to the specifics of the racial enmity charge, since they originally appeared in printed newspapers.

However, while organizations such as the International Crisis Group observed the Kyrgyz-language press’ role in fuelling tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the run up to and aftermath of ethnic violence in 2010, no ethnic Kyrgyz editors or journalists have been brought before the courts since that time.

Commenting on Kloop.kg's facebook plugin, Bektour Iskender said:

I don't know whose side I am on in Farafanov's case. But the fact that Kyrgyz language newspapers aren't investigated for nationalism at all – this is certainly a fact IMO.

Take Sha noted that the case had important implications for press and internet freedoms in a country that generally enjoys a better track record in both than its neighbours:

Kyrgyzstan differs from CSI [former Soviet] countries in that you can write what you like and [the state] won't come and grab you, whether it is online, in forums…

But on Twitter, it was clear that Farafanov's writing had caused offence.

@tano-banzai: Farafanov is a ****

Meanwhile, @Samatdolotbakov articulated:

People, have you read the articles of #Farafanov “on the Kyrgyz”? Little **** has irritated me. The following tweets will be citations from his articles…

@Ryskulbekov agreed, tending toward the theory that the articles were written by a collective, rather than an individual:

@Ryskulbekov@samatdolotbakov Samat, I consider, that these Farafonovs are the most genuinely destructive forces in our society

Once referred to as Central Asia's 'island of democracy', Kyrgyzstan has a reputation for political openness and media freedoms superior to the countries that it borders. The Tajik government's recent move to block Facebook, for instance, is an example of a decision that is almost unthinkable in Kyrgyzstan, where MPs actively use social media. Indeed, even aggressive ”trolling” across the country's online space is “pluralist”, according to an excellent IWPR report about comment “wars” between Central Asian netizens and state-sanctioned anonymous posters.

But there are signs that this may change. Recently, the government enacted a long-ago-passed parliamentary ruling blocking the independent Central Asian news website, Ferghana.ru, which lawmakers felt stoked inter-ethnic tensions in its coverage of the June 2010 violence. The country's former President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had banned the same site during his own time in office, but that block lasted just a month, as he was overthrown in a bloody coup in April 2010.

Regardless of what Vladimir Farafanov has or hasn't written, his conviction would set a worrying precedent for state incursions into online territory. If he is found guilty, then the Internet – and everything written on it - could be considered “fair game” for zealous state prosecutors and a compromised judiciary.

Kyrgyzstani bloggers await a verdict with mixed feelings.

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