The decision is not only in breach of the country’s international obligations with respect to media freedoms, but stands in contrast to the positive level of openness which has characterized Kyrgyzstan in recent years.
The first sign that something was wrong came on Monday 20 February, when some internet users in Kyrgyzstan reported that they had lost access to the news agency’s website. At first, access proved to be denied only to customers of the government-controlled provider Kyrgyztelekom. Internet users could still access the site through other private providers, including on their mobile telephones. However, according to the latest information, the Ministry of Communication has also instructed sub-providers to block the site by the end of this week.
Government officials and news readers alike were initially confused as to the reasons behind these developments in what is widely considered to be the most liberal of the Central Asian republics in terms of freedom of speech.
The reason was today revealed to be an order issued by the office of the Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic to the Ministry of Communications to report on the fulfillment of a number of tasks listed in a Parliament decision from June of last year, following a parliamentary hearing on the tragic events in the south of Kyrgyzstan in June 2010. Among the many recommendations given in a document after the hearing was blocking access to the Ferghana.ru website.
At the time, the recommendation was the object of widespread ridicule in social media in Kyrgyzstan, leading to a statement from former President Roza Otunbaeva that blocking access to the site would be in breach of constitutional principles and not in keeping with the spirit of the April 7 revolution: “Freedom of speech and dissemination of information is one of the most important achievement of the people of Kyrgyzstan. We are building an open society reflecting a full range of opinions. We will build a dialogue, argue with our opponents, but not shut the mouths as done before. Let’s not forget that the website Ferghana.ru was blocked for several weeks prior to the events of April 7.”
However, the issue has now re-surfaced, and will not be limited only to customers of Kyrgyztelekom. According to the Ministry of Communication, sub-providers are also obliged to block access to the web site by 27 February 2012, which means that Ferghana.ru will no longer be accessible to readers regardless of the provider they use.
Ferghana.ru is the main website covering the Central Asian region. Although it has been blocked for years in neighboring Uzbekistan, readers in Kyrgyzstan have been able to continue to enjoy its coverage of developments in the region in spite of the June 2011 recommendations issued by the Kyrgyzstani Parliament. Based in Moscow, the editor of the site Daniil Kislov and his team of journalists have been key providers of news from Central Asia since 1999, becoming the main sources of trustworthy information during both the preceding revolutions in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010, during the violence in the south of the country in June 2010, as well as during other dramatic events across the region. The site also offers commentaries and interviews with key political figures and analysts. The main content of the site is in its Russian-language section, although some articles are also translated into English from time to time.
While the site may be blocked, its contents will still be easily available to readers, as Ferghana.ru publishes articles through social media such as Facebook as well. In addition, more advanced users may continue to read the site through proxy servers, as is customary in many countries with repressive internet legislation.
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee protests the blocking of the website, and strongly encourages responsible authorities to reconsider a decision which will not stop the spread of information, but easily could do damage to Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.