Observers have questioned the need for Kyrgyzstan’s security service to monitor websites to identify hate speech.
The State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, is setting up a system to monitor the internet, with a particular focus on news sites with the .kg domain name, and plans to launch it in early autumn.
Using a web search engine that looks for certain words or phrases, the agency will seek to identify content liable to incite hatred on grounds of ethnicity, religion and even regional origin, in the wake of the ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
Critics have questioned why the security service has got involved in this sensitive project, given its lack of transparency and a reputation for trying to stifle criticism of the government.
The project was first made public in April, when GKNB Shamil Atakhanov referred to it in parliament.
It followed recommendations from a Kyrgyz parliamentary commission that investigated the June 2010 violence in and around the southern cities of Osh and Jalalabad, when more than 400 people died in clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks.
Tatiana Vygovskaya, director of Egalité, a conflict reduction group, argues that civil society groups are capable of identifying inflammatory content on their own. Her organisation has been monitoring television, radio and online news sites for hate speech since the 2010 bloodshed, and she sees no need for the secret service to start doing essentially the same thing.
Vygovskaya said the GKNB lacked the expertise to examine documents for hate speech and come up with findings that the public would see as objective and unbiased. Her own media monitors received one year’s training before starting work, and even then they still made occasional mistakes.
But if the GKNB made an error, she said, “it can have real consequences for people – it can lead to imprisonment”.
Begaim Usenova, media expert at the Bishkek-based Media Policy Institute said that letting the security committee monitor the internet was not the most effective way of tackling incitement, and created the risk of censorship.
“Haven’t they got anything else to do? They could cooperate with us and read our reports,” Usenova said.
The security service will conduct its monitoring using a special search engine, which Vygovskaya suggested would be too crude a mechanism.
“The programme will not perform [contextual] analysis, which is the reason we’re concerned. Any article could be picked up,” she said.
An IT security expert who asked to remain anonymous said information about the search engine the GKNB would be using was limited, and suggested it take a more open approach to discussing the technology, and disclose which kinds of key words the system would look for.
He also expressed concern that the agency might link its new search engine for open-source material with its existing database of surveillance material from email, SMS text and phone intercepts. Use of the latter material, he said, was unregulated and far from transparent.
“The more secrecy there is, the more that is left unsaid, and the more things are kept hidden, the greater the suspicions will be that people are covering up something they are afraid of,” the IT expert concluded.
The GKNB took several weeks to respond to IWPR’s questions about the new system, and when it did, it said its technical department had no specific information about how it would work. However, the agency stressed that it always operated within the law, and promised that checks would be put in place to prevent the system being abused.
Some rights activists point out that the GKNB’s previous efforts to combat incitement to hatred have faced problems.
The GKNB has a special commission that includes legal professionals and linguists to deal with alleged breaches.
Earlier this year, committee members refused to review a statement for possible inflammatory content when they discovered it was linked to an influential politician. The GKNB acknowledged the problem, and proposed legislation to ensure the neutrality of members, such as providing them with anonymity and paying them instead of having them work for nothing.
Experts like Usenova point out that although the media are not immune from carrying inflammatory material, the most scandalous examples come from politicians, which the media simply report on.
Usenova recalled one incident in parliament earlier this year when a lawmaker gave a dressing-down to an ethnic Kyrgyz government official for addressing the chamber in Russian rather than Kyrgyz.
The incident prompted a debate on ethnicity and language, in which some commentators pointed out that it was not unlawful to speak Russian in parliament. Russian serves as a lingua franca and is denoted a second “official language”, after the state language Kyrgyz.
Since the debate was widely covered in the media, some are now asking whether this kind of reporting could fall foul of the GKNB’s monitoring system.
Nor is it clear whether there is enough hate speech on the internet to justify the security agency’s involvement.
Public complaints about alleged cases of incitement are rare. Out of two reported cases when members of the public have complained about hate speech, one has reached court.
Vladimir Farafonov, an ethnic Russian journalist charged with inciting ethnic hatred in a series of online articles, was the first writer to be prosecuted since the 2010 conflict.
Although many found his derogatory remarks about ethnic Kyrgyz distasteful, his trial earlier this year was viewed as a test of free speech and the fairness of the judiciary.
When Farafonov’s trial started in March, the prosecution asked for an eight-year prison sentence. But following an outcry by Russian nationalist politicians in Moscow, he avoided prison and was instead fined just over 1,000 US dollars.
In the other case, Ata Jurt leader Kamchibek Tashiev gave an interview in February suggesting that Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov was unfit to run the country because he was not of “pure Kyrgyz” parentage.
In that case, the GKNB’s commission of experts reviewed Tashiev’s interview at the request of the state prosecutor, and concluded that no offence had been committed.
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