Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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Closed Mixed Outcome
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The Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan found that the President of Kyrgyzstan had not harmed the reputation of two human rights defenders when he mentioned them by name in a public speech that criticized his political opposition. In May 2016, President Atambaev made a public speech in which he listed his political enemies, and went on to accuse them of wanting to destabilize the country and of working for foreign governments. He mentioned by name two prominent Kyrgyz human rights defenders, Tolekan Ismailova and Aziza Abdirasulova, and declared that they worked faithfully to meet the demands of foreign donors. The human rights defenders sued President Atambaev, arguing that his statements harmed their reputation and dignity. The lower instance courts ruled in favour of the President, and held that the President’s statements concerning the human rights defenders were true since they received foreign funding. The courts clarified that the President’s statements about certain individuals wanting to destabilize the country did not apply to the human rights defenders, since they were not specifically named in those statements. The Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan agreed with the lower instance courts.
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On May 14, 2016, Mr. Almazbek Atambaev, the President of Kyrgyzstan, in a public speech, listed by name persons who opposed his rule. These individuals included two well-known Kyrgyz human rights defenders, Ms. Tolekan Ismailova and Ms. Aziza Abdirasulova. In his speech, President Atambaev referred to the two women as “female NGO workers who faithfully work for their foreign grants.” He added that various customers and donors who seek to destabilize Kyrgyzstan also supported human rights defenders. Furthermore, the President asserted that the women had assets, property, and support abroad.
The two human rights defenders brought a lawsuit against President Atambaev, arguing that his statements violated their reputation and dignity as protected by Article 18 of the Civil Code of Kyrgyzstan. They demanded a public apology from the President, and individually sought compensation of 10 million Kyrgyz SOM (approx. $147,000).
The first instance trial began on June 8, 2016. One of the human rights defenders, Ms. Abdirasulova, provided the court with an expert analysis of President Atambaev’s speech. This analysis concluded that the President had made degrading statements about Ms. Abdirasulova. Additionally, she argued that, by making such statements, the President invited law enforcement to harass and investigate her and other human rights defenders.
Ms. Ismailova presented evidence of harm that she, her family, and her colleagues had suffered as a result of President Atambaev’s words, which she believed framed them as “enemies of the people”. She also argued that all grants that she and her organization received were utilized to better the country.
The President’s representative, Ms. Almaz Osmanova, offered the defense of truth. She clarified that the President referred to the human rights defenders in only one sentence of his speech. In that sentence, he stated that Ms. Ismailova and Ms. Abdirasulova worked to meet the required deliverables of foreign grants. She argued that this sentence did not contain any false or defamatory information since the two human rights defenders received foreign funding that demanded the completion of certain projects and tasks. Additionally, Ms. Osmanova argued that the President did not write his speech and, thus, could not verify the truth of its contents.
On June 16, the first instance court ruled in favor of President Atambaev. In its judgment, the court explained that the human rights defenders are mentioned by name in only one sentence of the President’s speech. In that sentence, the President said that the two human rights defenders work to meet the deliverables of their foreign donors. The President did not mention them when discussing his enemies and those who aimed to destabilize the country. Thus, the arguments presented by Ms. Abdirasulova and Ms. Ismailova had no basis.
The human rights defenders appealed the decision. On September 7, 2016, the Bishkek City Court upheld the lower instance ruling. In October 2016, the human rights defenders appealed to the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan. At the hearing, Ms. Osmanova, in addition to the defense of truth, argued that President Atambaev simply shared his subjective opinions, as protected by his freedom of speech. On May 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan upheld the lower instance decisions.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision has a mixed outcome. The decision expands freedom of expression to the extent that it upheld the President of Kyrgyzstan’s right to make public statements about two human rights defenders, who were undoubtedly public figures. On the other hand, the statements that were made by the President arguably put the human rights defenders at risk of being harassed or investigated by law enforcement, which would have a “chilling effect” on Kyrgyz human rights defenders speaking out in the future. The context of this case is also relevant. In 2017, President Atambaev successfully sued an independent media company, Zanoza, for articles and statements. Some of these articles and statements did not even refer to the President by name. Thus, suggesting an imbalance between the protections that are afforded to human rights defenders’ right to freedom of expression when compared to that of the President.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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