SWM 2014: Using the internet to pre-empt hate speech in Kyrgyzstan
Case study by Katya Quinn-Judge
Kyrgyzstan has one of Central Asia’s most vibrant and fastest-growing internet scenes, and online platforms are playing an increasingly important role in the country. These have the potential to serve as an information bridge not only between Kyrgyzstan and other countries, but also among its different regions, which are relatively isolated due to the country’s harsh topography. At the same time, online interaction has the potential to reinforce the social divisions that gained prominence after inter-ethnic violence in 2010, as internet users reproduce some of the polarizing rhetoric present in political discourse and in other forms of media.
Kyrgyzstan’s government has strict laws against inciting ‘hatred’, but these are unevenly enforced. In order to avoid official sanction, many online forums practise careful moderation to limit content that could be seen as inflaming inter-ethnic or inter-religious tensions. A number of Kyrgyzstani bloggers and internet journalists, however, are taking a more proactive approach to ensure that the internet’s power to unify outweighs its potential to divide. By publishing factual, balanced articles on socially relevant issues – and teaching other youth to do the same – these activists attempt to set an example of how the internet can be used productively.
Many analysts and citizens of Kyrgyzstan believe that ethnically inflammatory and nonfactual statements in television, print and online media helped set the tone for the June 2010 violence. In the wake of the violence, concerned that the internet could become a platform for hate speech, a group of young media entrepreneurs started a programme to teach other young adults techniques for producing balanced internet journalism. As one of the programme’s initiators explained, Kyrgyzstan desperately needs young journalists and bloggers who can provide ‘fast, reliable, balanced information’ for their peers, and ‘set a positive example of proactive, critical thinking’.
Numerous participants in the training programme, which ran from 2011 to 2012, have gone on to successful careers as professional journalists, while others remain active bloggers. Participants report that their training taught them to avoid non-factual statements when interacting on online forums and publishing articles and posts, and to refrain from responding to provocative speech in kind.
In light of their determination to counteract inflammatory online speech, some programme participants are attentive to the ebbs and flows of the online climate. For example, one former participant reported noticing a surge in aggressive speech on the internet around Independence Day celebrations, while also suggesting that the internet climate during these celebrations may vary according to the composition of the local government.
According to Ainura (not her real name), now an active blogger in Osh:
‘Last year there was the day of the kolpak [a traditional head covering for Kyrgyz men], where if you were Kyrgyz, you wore your kolpak. And around that time there was a lot of anger directed towards those who used Russian on the internet. This year I didn’t notice it as much. Maybe it had to do with the local government we had then [the mayoral administration of Melis Myrzakmatov, a noted Kyrgyz nationalist who was controversially removed from power by Kyrgyzstan’s central government in late 2013].They actively worked up that atmosphere. Since they’ve been out of power, people have calmed down a bit – at least as far as arguing about the language issue is concerned.’
This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2014. View the full report.
Photo: Children in a damaged mahallah or Uzbek neighborhood in southern Kyrgyzstan - an area affected by inter-ethnic violence in 2010. Credit: Nonviolent Peaceforce/Sofia Skrypnyk