‘Only Death Can Stop Us’: Kyrgyz Journalist Fights for Freedom

photo - Bolot Temirov

THE HAGUE – The international campaign in support of politically targeted Kyrgyz journalist Bolot Temirov grew earlier this month with a public appearance by his wife at the World Justice Forum.

Makhabat Tazhibek Kyzy spoke at the Forum about the plight of her husband, who was arrested in January on what she calls “absurd” criminal charges. Temirov was freed from jail but has been charged with at least five additional crimes and threatened with deportation to Russia, Tazhibek Kyzy said.

“We will keep on going and keep fighting,” she said through a interpreter in an interview with WNN. “Only death can stop us.”

Temirov, a veteran investigative journalist who runs the news portal Temirov LIVE, was detained after publishing an article alleging relatives of Kyrgyzstan’s top intelligence official improperly received 37 million Kyrgyzsom (about US$465,000) in an oil export deal. According to media reports, the head of the State Committee for National Security (UKMK) called the article “blatant lies” and denied “stealing a single som from the state.”

In response to the article, Temirov was forcibly taken from his office in the capital city of Bishkek. Masked men grabbed computer equipment, documents and video recordings. Authorities said they found marijuana in the office, though Tazhibek Kyzy told WNN that she personally saw the men plant the drugs.

In addition to drug possession, Temirov also has been charged with falsifying a document to free him from military service, forging documents to obtain a Kyrgyz passport, and traveling to and from Kyrgyzstan illegally. Interestingly, Temirov has not been charged with or sued for libel for publishing incorrect information.

Smiling throughout the interview, Tazhibek Kyzy called all of the charges “absurd,” contrived and retaliatory. She said her husband knew the dangers of writing an exposé about Kyrgyzstan’s top spy. “We calculated the risks of publishing the investigation. I am coping relatively well,” said Tazhibek Kyzy, herself a long-time journalist who has started several public interest initiatives.

For now, Temirov is awaiting trial. “We expect public unrest if he is convicted,” Tazhibek Kyzy said. The couple is working to shield their 10-year-old son from the effects of the ordeal, though that is becoming more difficult. Tazhibek Kyzy said officers have entered their apartment and warned Temirov to stop writing critical articles.

In their own response, Tazhibek Kyzy said Temirov LIVE has published the names and photographs of the masked people who she believes raided the office. She said they were from police agencies and the UKMK.

Despite the legal actions and threats, Temirov LIVE continues its work, in cooperation with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Bellingcat, and news portals kloop in Kyrgyzstan and The Insider in Ukraine. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Committee to Protect Journalist are among many groups calling attention to the situation. “A free media is vital to fighting corruption,” said the US State Department, which last year named Temirov one of 12 anti-corruption champions. Temirov Live was a finalist in the Forum’s World Justice Challenge competition, which highlighted rule of law projects from around the world.

Though Kyrgyzstan is Central Asia’s top-ranked country in terms of media freedom, Reporters Without Borders observed recently, “Most people do not share the critical opinions and democratic ideas that journalists disseminate.”

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