Saadat Omorova, Kyrgyzstani human rights activist.
For the past several years, Kyrgyzstan’s human rights activists and their supporters have been under constant attack online for exposing human rights violations, expressing their opinions and simply speaking out against violence. Hate speech and violent threats are used daily as weapons to silence the voices of society’s most marginalized groups. These online attacks take a variety of forms including harassment, threats, and open calls to violence. Assessing the publicly available information on users who post hate-filled comments on social media, the majority of the online attacks are coming from young Kyrgyz men. However, it is often hard to determine exactly who is coordinating hate speech efforts due to the frequent use of fake profiles and accounts. It has become common for people or groups to create massive online hate campaigns against marginalized groups and mobilize internet users to use violence, including sexual assault, as a method of punishment. These campaigns use homophobia/transphobia, misogyny and fundamentalist religious interpretations to justify and promote the hatred they spread.
According to a recent report on hate speech in Kyrgyzstan’s media, hate speech is defined as “a phenomenon that can be expressed in a form of sexism, gender discrimination, racism, xenophobia, interethnic hostility or intolerance, instigating violence, hatred or discrimination.”[i] The findings of the report show that journalists, politicians, and cultural elites that shape public opinion are often the main perpetrators of hate speech. In 2013 alone, the report identifies 160 hostile attacks in the monitored online media sources. Unfortunately, the report does not look extensively at the fastest growing segment of the internet: social media. As of 2013, in Kyrgyzstan, there were over 2 million internet users out of a total population of roughly 5 million people, and that number has continued to rapidly increase.[ii] According to the 2010 OpenNet Initiative study, while only 2% of Kyrgyzstani citizens own computers, a majority of the Kyrgyzstan’s internet users accesses the internet via workplace connections, cell phones, and internet cafes. As internet penetration and the practice on the use of internet without revealing identity increases, online hate speech becomes more of a threat to activists, marginalized communities and ordinary people sharing similar views. Considering the inaction of law enforcement and the General Prosecutor’s office, the government of Kyrgyzstan does not seem to perceive and approach this issue as a serious human rights violation. One of the illustrations of the governmental position is the fact that the Law on Mass Media does not list Internet as media and thus does not provide any regulations over the online content.[iii]
2014 saw two prominent cases of high profile activists suffering intense online hate speech campaigns. The first case took place in January 2014 when an LGBT activist publically spoke out against police brutality. The activist participated openly in a press conference presenting the findings of a Human Rights Watch study describing police abuse towards gay and bisexual men.[iv] Shortly after the press conference, Kyrgyz-language media outlet held a follow-up interview with the activist. Several days after the press conference, the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan (Muftiyat) issued a fatwa, which condoned the killing of LGBT people.[v] Soon after this, several social media users began reposting the activist’s interview together with calls for violence on Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and other websites popular in Kyrgyzstan. One particular post on Odnoklassiki alone has over 5500 comments, the vast majority of which called for the activist and LGBT community of Kyrgyzstan to be killed, tortured, imprisoned or deported.[vi] Users described the activist as a sheep that needed its throat slit and a mentally-ill person in need of a cure. The activist continues to receive threats online and in person and is afraid to go outside alone.
The second case took place in February 2014 when a human rights activist and journalist became the target of Kalys, an ultra-nationalist group. In an anti-LGBT demonstration outside of the American embassy, Kalys activists burnt a picture of the journalist, accusing him of being a “defender of homosexuals.”[vii] Reports and videos of this demonstration instantly appeared online on news portals and social media, where the majority of comments praised Kalys, condemned journalist’s actions and called for violence against him and the LGBT community. The journalist began to receive continuous death threats via social media directly from various users and indirectly through his friends. After a week of non-stop threats and intimidation, he was forced to flee Kyrgyzstan.[viii] After the journalist left, a prominent online media outlet published a long piece of “investigative” article accusing him of being a pro-Maidan activist.[ix] Since the events in Kiev, citizens of Kyrgyzstan have been subjected to non-stop coverage from Russian media, which describe the Maidan activists as Western-backed fascist thugs. Because of these publications, journalist’s reputation has been ruined and he is unable to return to Kyrgyzstan.
These cases are but two examples of the countless incidents that remain unpublicized and undocumented. There are no comprehensive statistics or proper investigations of online hate speech and its impact on public opinion and violence in the country, but the cases of these two activists vividly demonstrate how online hate speech can seriously impact the everyday lives of targeted people from Kyrgyzstan’s marginalized groups. Online hate speech also directly attacks and undermines one of the few places safe for open discussions on sensitive topics. This hate speech undermines the country’s efforts to develop democratically, which requires open and honest debates on different issues involving different opinions. As more and more people in Kyrgyzstan go online, the issue of online hate speech must become an issue of national concern that should be properly investigated, documented and addressed by human rights organizations and the government of Kyrgyzstan.