Jan. 18 (UPI) -- The U.S. State Department on Thursday expressed concern over press freedoms in Kyrgyzstan.
Authorities there conducted raids this week on two news outlets, arresting journalists and keeping them incarcerated for several hours.
Officers from Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security on Monday raided the office of 24.kg in the capital of Bishek. Police confiscated the news outlet's equipment and detained its general director Asel Otorbaeva and chief editors Makhinur Niyazova and Anton Lymar.
The SCNS said a criminal investigation was opened accusing 24.kg of "propaganda of war," without further elaboration. Authorities questioned Otorbaeva, Niyazova and Lymar for about 45 minutes each before releasing them.
Niyazova told reporters the investigation was related to a report from 24.kg about Russia's war with Ukraine and that the investigation is retaliation for the news outlet's "independent position."
Bishek police on Tuesday also raided the office of Temirov Live, confiscated its equipment and arrested and searched the homes of 11 current and former staff.
Kyrgyzstan's Ministry of Internal Affairs opened a criminal case against Temirov Live and sister project Ait Ait Dese for unspecified publications that called for "active disobedience" against government officials and for "mass riots," as well as "violence against citizens."
The 11 detainees were held in police custody for 48 hours, pending a court ruling on further custody measures, according to media reports.
Temirov Live founder Bolot Temirov told media outlets that editors did not call for riots in their materials and that it was unclear which publications the police allegations targeted.
This was not the first time Temirov Live came under fire from authorities. The publication was raided in 2022 and Bolot Temirov was deported to Russia on charges that he forged documents to obtain a Kyrgyz passport.
By Kyrgyzstan law, propaganda of war is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison, and calling for mass unrest could lead to five to eight years in prison.
Established in 2006, 24.kg is one of Kyrgyzstan's oldest online news outlets and one of the country's leading sources of news. The organization also has come under heavy fire in recent months. Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor in September ordered access to the website be blocked due to its "anti-Russian" coverage of the invasion of Ukraine
U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller released a statement Thursday, which said the United States is "deeply concerned" by the Kyrgyz government's recent crackdowns on independent media outlets.
"These actions contribute to a pattern of government activity that appears aimed at stifling public debate and free expression," Miller said in the statement. "A free and independent press is essential for protecting human rights, maintaining effective democratic institutions, and promoting peace and security."
U.N. Human Rights Office Spokesperson Liz Throssell also issued a statement condemning the arrest and detention of Kyrgyz journalists.
"These latest actions by the authorities appear to be part of a larger pattern of pressure against civil society activists, journalists and other critics of the authorities," Throssell said, adding the arrests are more concerning as the Kyrgyz Parliament is considering a bill to further restrict media freedom.