Twitter vs. the KGB
Can social media save a journalist in trouble in a place like Kyrgyzstan?
BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — On Nov. 2, Nic Tanner seemed like a lucky guy: He’d spent all of three weeks in Kyrgyzstan — an impoverished, landlocked squiggle of a country on the fringes of the former Soviet empire — and had already managed to publish a photo on the homepage of the New York Times. He was 27, paid $9 a night for his hotel room, and was just starting to pull together a professional portfolio in a place he loved. Life looked good.
Nic was based in the southern city of Osh, a scruffy provincial town of 260,000 nestled along a major drug-exporting route from Afghanistan. In June 2010, Osh had been the epicenter of interethnic carnage that left more than 400 dead and thousands homeless. For months afterward, the bereaved passed around photos of scorched, mutilated bodies that had once, possibly, belonged to people they loved. The city’s burly mayor and local security forces were accused by three Western inquiries of doing too little to prevent the bloodshed, at a minimum, and possibly abetting it. They denied the charges. The trials and investigations that followed the fighting, according to Human Rights Watch, were marred by "threats, violence, and serious violations, such as arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment."
By midday on Nov. 3, Nic didn’t seem so lucky anymore. The clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks may have ended, but the city remained the same. So did its police and security officials: ham-fisted, confident of their own impunity and wary of outsiders. Nic knew a little about this from his two years living in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, but he was about to get a reminder.
Kyrgyzstan had held a presidential election four days earlier, on Oct. 30, which was hailed as the first in Central Asia’s post-Soviet history in which an incumbent had stepped down voluntarily. The appraisal was technically true, but generous nonetheless. The outgoing president had been a lame duck for months, while the winner was her fellow party member and prime minister. He swept up 63 percent of the vote in balloting that election observers claimed was marked by "significant irregularities." The two biggest losers in the election — both popular in the restive south — refused to recognize the results, and their supporters took to the streets.
And there was Nic to capture it on film: A crowd of maybe two hundred people — the women in colorful headscarves, one young man on horseback — had gathered around the statue of Vladimir Lenin in Osh’s central square. Behind them stretched the long, white rectangle of a building housing the mayor’s and governor’s offices, which had been stormed by supporters in May 2010 after an interim government tried to replace local authorities with its own loyalists.
Nic didn’t know who, if anyone, would buy his photos; he had some tentative agreements with international aid organizations. No news agency would help him, an untested stringer, get accredited as a journalist. But Kyrgyz law allows photographing in public places.
Then came some men in jeans and black jackets who disagreed. Nic spoke with them — first one, then two, then three — in Kyrgyz, which he’d learned in his Peace Corps days. The interaction grew tense. Nic dialed an American friend in the capital, Bishkek, an hour’s flight away — an editor who hoped Nic would report and photograph for his news website. He explained the situation.
"Do they have ID?" David asked.
"They say they’re KGB," Nic responded, referring to the State Committee for National Security, the successor agency of the Soviet-era secret police. "And they want to see my passport, but the hotel kept it."
"Demand to see their ID."
Nic asked, but the men refused. Finally, one of them flashed an ID card for a second or two, not long enough to read either his name or the name of his organization. They insisted Nic get in their car.
"Do not get in their car!" David said. "Just get out of there. Walk away. We don’t know who they are. For all we know they want to kidnap you. Tell them that. Tell them it’s kidnapping."
"They’re pulling me."
"They’re grabbing me, trying to pull me in the car."
"Walk, man. Just walk! Get out of there!"
"I’m walking. They’re following me."
This went on for more than a mile. The men had climbed in their car and drove along slowly, periodically stopping and trying to force Nic inside. He was walking toward a cluster of United Nations and other aid agencies. The presence of Western witnesses with diplomatic status, he hoped, would insure him against abuse. For a time, he managed to convince the men that his passport was there and he would produce it once they arrived; the men seemed to agree, but then changed their minds. David wouldn’t let Nic off the phone.
"What’s happening now? … Are there any other cars around? Can you flag one?"
"Come on! There’s got to be other cars."
"Whenever one slows down, these guys tell him to keep moving."
"Well, just keep walking. How far are you from the U.N.?"
"I’m not sure. Owsh…!"
"What?! What’s happening?!"
"They ripped my shirt."
"Just keep going, man. Walk. Run if you have to. No, wait, don’t run."
"I can’t. They’ve got me on the hood of the car."
David repeated the news to his wife (full disclosure: that’s me), and I started making calls. I phoned a friend at the U.N. office for human rights in Bishkek, who texted over the number of a colleague in Osh. I called her. The town encompasses only six square miles, so minutes later the U.N. official pulled up on the scene. The plainclothes ruffians calmed down a bit; a third man, clearly their senior, showed up. All together, the group went to Nic’s hotel for a passport check.
David, meanwhile, called a press officer acquaintance at the U.S. Embassy. He took down the details, and offered a suggestion: "Tweet it."
In seconds, the words "American photographer Nic Tanner being harassed and physically assaulted in #Osh, #Kyrgyzstan. Please help!" went out to 738 Twitter followers in English and Russian. The responses poured in immediately, mostly from young former and current Kyrgyz officials. A one-time presidential chief of staff tweeted back "where exactly? Contact info?" A parliament member and a staffer from the prime minister’s office called to get specifics.
This is not a story of Twitter’s ability to galvanize grassroots protests and marshal ordinary citizens to defend just causes. Kyrgyzstan is a place where high-tech social networks meet old-fashioned patronage networks. All those who got in touch were people we knew personally, and people with some clout. According to a recent national survey, only 19 percent of the country’s 5.4 million residents have ever used the Internet. A far smaller elite uses sites like Twitter.
But nationwide, among the young and old, the tech-savvy and the paper-and-pencil set, the same context applies: Institutions are weak, courts serve as theater props, and laws are broken by those meant to enforce them, so the most effective means of getting things done is through personal connections. Our use of social media didn’t tap a network of underground civil-society activists — it simply sped up the well-oiled machinery of string-pulling.
One Twitter-tracking official let David know she had texted the head of the secret police and contacted a deputy interior minister. Another said he’d help as well.
Nic phoned. The men had taken his passport. They were telling him to sign a paper admitting he’d broken the law and threatening to keep him detained until he did.
"Don’t sign! Don’t sign anything they give you!" David yelled into the phone.
Nic bluffed, saying he wouldn’t go anywhere before talking to his lawyer, though he knew no lawyer was coming.
All we could do was stall for time.
Then, a text arrived from one of our helpful officials: "We called" — without specifying whom — "He should be let go soon."
David’s phone rang again. It was Nic: "Hey, so, I don’t know what you did, man, but…"
"Talk to me. What’s happening?"
"So, one of the security guys gets a call, walks a couple of paces away, talking very softly, then, within like 30 seconds, comes back over and says, ‘Here’s your passport. There’s no problem.’"
"He had such a tail-between-his-legs look — there was this total transformation, from king of the hill to defeat and acquiescence."
David sent messages of thanks to all those who had helped. One of the officials texted back, "Sure. We yelled at someone :)"
We’re grateful we had him — and can imagine all too vividly what happens to those whose friends are less well-connected, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. But so long as people in Kyrgyzstan have good reason to distrust government, innovations like Twitter will serve to bolster old ways of doing things at least as much as they offer new ones.