Kyrgyzstan: Caught Between Nationalists, Court Fines Journalist

On July 3, 2012, a court in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek rendered a long-anticipated verdict in the controversial case of journalist-cum-blogger Vladimir Farafonov. The court found [ru] the ethnic Russian journalist guilty of “inciting national hatred” by insulting ethnic Kyrgyz in a series of online articles written in 2010 and 2011. Farafonov who did not attend the court session amid fears for his safety was ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 soms (about 1,100 US dollars).

Judge Almazbek Moldobekov explained [ru] that he decided to impose a fine on the journalist instead of sentencing him to eight years in jail – as the prosecution had demanded – because it was Farafonov's first ever conviction. However, observers believe that the verdict has been designed to balance the competing demands of nationalist-patriots in Kyrgyzstan, who wanted the journalist jailed, and ethnic nationalists in Russia, who demanded [ru] his release.

Vladimir Farafonov outside the Pervomaiski court in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Image by, used with permission.

Farafonov was accused under article 299 of the country's Criminal Code, which applies a charge of inciting “national, racial, religious, or inter-regional enmity” via mass media. While the journalist denies that any of his articles were meant to encouragd enmity, they did actually provoke [ru] a stern counter-reaction in the Kyrgyz-language press. In Russia, meanwhile, the ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky threatened [ru] to demand the deportation of Kyrgyz migrants from the country if Farafonov was handed a prison sentence.

The outcome of the contentious trial that had lasted over four months has triggered different reactions among netizens in the Kyrgyz and Russian segments of the internet.

A reader of the news site, Lugan’, felt [ru] that the court ruling has restored a modicum of common sense:

Киргизы молодцы. Не словом а делом.

Well done Kyrgyz. Not in word but in deed.

Yet, some netizens have spoken out against the ruling. One of them, Quazy, considered [ru] the punishment farcical:

Маргиналы и нацики включились, конечно такое смешное наказание…

Marginals and nationalists got involved, [because] it is a ridiculous punishment.

Many commenters on .ru listed websites , such as Andrey Yakovenko, even elevated [ru] Farafonov to the status of a hero:

Кто правды боится, тот пусть вешается. Фарафонов не испугался, поэтому он – ГЕРОЙ! Рот заткнуть и запугать можно, кого угодно, но жизнь лучше от этого не станет… Если некоторые господа-националисты надеятся, что таким образом можно закрыть “Глас народа”, то они очень ошибаются,

Let those who are afraid of the truth hang themselves. Farafonov has not been afraid, so he is a HERO! Anyone can be intimidated and forced to shut up, but [our] lives will not become better as a result… If some of these nationalists hope to suppress the “voice of the people” by doing so, they are mistaken.

But commenters on .kg listed websites such as Knews have suggested the journalist deserved a harsher punishment. Mirbek, for example, said [ru]:

А вообще,надо было все таки ему дать срок,что бы неповадно было больше провоцировать целые народы на негатив

He should have been given a jail sentence so that [others] learn not to provoke nations into negative [actions].

While another reader, Vym argued [ru] for something far more draconian:

Фарафонава нужно на народный суд!!!!  На площадь Ала Тоо и камнмями закидать!

Farafonov should be subjected to a people's court!!! [Set him up] on the Ala Too square and get him stoned!

The co-founder and president of Kloop Media, Bektour Iskender, offered [ru] perhaps the most insightful comment on the case:

Мда. Интересное решение. Посадить Фарафонова побоялись – всё-таки за ним есть поддержка, особенно со стороны России. Оправдать тоже побоялись – тогда национал-патриоты возбудились бы. Приняли какое-то среднее решение. Мне не нравятся статьи Фарафонова. Я их считаю жуткими, односторонними и слишком агрессивными. Но я крайне против в принципе идеи того, чтобы человека наказывали за слово, даже очень противоречивое. И очень жаль, что наши власти создали этот дурацкий прецедент. Потому что любого можно назвать разжигателем межнацрозни или кем ещё угодно и влепить штраф в 50 тыс. сомов.

Hmm. An interesting decision. They did not have the courage to imprison Farafanov- after all, he has supporters, particularly in Russia. Nor did they have the courage to clear [Farafonov] of the charges brought against him – this would have [angered] nationalists and patriots [in Kyrgyzstan]. They've made a middle-way decision. I do not like Farafonov's articles. I find them terrible, biased, and excessively aggressive. But I do not support [the authorities] in punishing an individual for words, even when these words are very controversial. It is a pity that the authorities have set this precedent. Because any person can be accused of inciting national enmity – or anything else – and ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 soms.

This “precedent” may prove to be particularly relevant for online content. After becoming the first author in Kyrgyzstan to be punished by court for material posted on the internet, Farafonov has given [ru] his own take on Almazbek Moldobekov's verdict in a statement released through a lawyer on July 3:

Впервые за много лет я оказался в логическом тупике и не могу найти ответ на один простой вопрос: для чего понадобились четыре месяца судебных разбирательств по делу. Очевидно, для того, чтобы показать, что в Кыргызстане действительно разжигают межнациональную рознь в СМИ……Получается, что русскоязычные сайты не имеют права голоса даже в пределах российского информационного пространства. А кыргызские газеты, печатающие откровенно провокационные статьи, неприкосновенны.

For the first time in many years, I have found myself at a logical impasse; I cannot find an answer to a simple question: why did they need a four-month-long trial to look into this case? Apparently, [this was needed] to show that media in Kyrgyzstan do indeed incite national enmity… It turns out that Russian-language websites do not have the right to voice their views, even within the Russian information space. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz newspapers that print explicitly provocative articles are [immune to punishment].

Note: This article is a follow up to Global Voices’ April 2, 2012 report on the Vladimir Farafonov case, The Internet on Trial.

This post is part of the GV Central Asia Interns Project at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan


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