Rinat Tuhvatshin: “When corruption becomes too difficult and risky, we will win!”

Clara Zid, May 2020

Rinat Tukhvatshin, Co-founder of Kloop Media.

Kloop Media Foundation is an investigative news outlet and youth school of journalism from Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia where corruption is present at all levels of society. Kloop’s journalism school for youths (14-25 years) allows students to learn the profession by practicing in Kloop’s news room and producing content with senior staff.

The news outlet was founded in 2007 by Bektur Iskender and Rinat Tuhvatshin, and quickly became one of the most popular investigative news websites in the country. Their popularity grew as Kloop played an important role during the revolution in April 2010, when they were one of the few reliable online sources covering it.

Operating from Bishek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, Kloop employs 15 jounalists and 6 programmers specializing on data analysis, and collaborates with 5 – 20 students. Rinat says: “We usually have 2 or 3 journalism schools per year and, from there, we recruit interns. Out of them, perhaps 5 students are able to produce the number and quality of stories that we require to join our team as a journalist”.

The idea of young people learning journalism through producing relevant content for a real audience is so good that it has been cloned by Eurasia Foundation’s Professional Youth Journalism (PYJ) program, run by Kloop, that has already trained more than 273 young journalists in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Rinat assures that “the principles we teach are very simple: journalism should be accurate, it should be balanced, and it should be interesting to our readers”. Kloop is frequently awarded for its work. Recently they, working together with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), received both first and second places from Egizbaevs Foundation, a local Kyrgyz award for investigative journalism. The story that received first place was product of cooperation between Azattk, OCCRP, and Kloop. This story also won Tom Renner award in USA.

The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) frequently gives attention to the Kyrgyz news outlet. “Almost every month, the GIJN refers to our material”, Rinat explains.

Reflecting over Kloop’s work, Rinat says that two investigative stories that stands out of the crowd, Samara Gate, and the investigation around the Matraimov family. The Samara Gate investigation, a joint collaboration with Qurium, revealed a system for managing the dirty tricks campaign of the current president of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov. The system, Samara.kg, was traced back to a server hosted at infrastructure connected to the state. The release of the report resulted in some threats against Kloop Media.

Kloop has also been sued by the Matraimov family, one of the richest people in Kyrgyzstan. OCCRP, Radio Azattyk and Kloop collaborated to publish, on December 3, that Raimbek Matraimov was involved in a US$700 million money laundering operation, while he was serving as a high-ranking customs official. The investigation relied on testimony provided by Aierken Saimaiti who was shot dead at a cafe in Istanbul on November. One journalist was physically attacked during the investigation and some websites have experienced cyberattacks.

The corruption in Kyrgyzstan is rampant, and penetrates all levels of society, including the presidency. Transparency.org reports “judiciary remains one of the country’s most corrupt institutions, lacking legitimacy and independence”.

Rinat says: “We have chosen to focus on corruption and human rights because it literally kills people and we think it is the most important topic to cover”. If you are into journalism, he says, you should be investigating corruption and protecting human rights: There is no higher priority for us”.

“Most of the threats we received is due to the fact that we are the most LGBTQ friendly media in Kyrgyzstan”

Because of their work, the Kloop management and staff regularly receive threats and attacks, mostly online:”Most of the threats we received is due to the fact that we are the most LGBTQ friendly media in Kyrgyzstan, so whenever we cover any LGBT related issue, we receive threats”, Rinat says. Other types of attacks include physical surveillance, lawsuits, DDoS attacks, and phishing attacks. Each time Kloop publishes an investigative report, it is followed by a DDoS attack.

“Qurium protects us, almost perfectly, against DDoS attacks”, explains the journalist. And continues: “Qurium has been one of our greatest partners. And the reason is because they always want to go one step further than just being a hosting provider or a digital security provider”.

He adds: “Qurium really gets involved in our investigations and our work, and they dig further to find out who is behind the attacks”. That’s because, he says: “People at Qurium are really trying to understand the essence of our work, the threats that we are facing, and I think we never will receive any similar support from a technical partner”.

We end up talking about the future of investigative journalism. Rinat has a declaration of principle: “We all get killed, jailed or exiled. It is either that or we will win.”. Rinat is well aware of the risks involved in his work. He says: “When you are involved in investigative journalism, you must understand that you will have adversaries that will do anything to stop you”.

“Investigative journalism is a series of battles. And you should be ready for losing many of them”

Based on personal experience, he clarifies: “You should be ready for having a lot of people trolling and smearing you online, and telling terrible things about you, and trying to make your life a nightmare”. Despite awards and acknowledgements, journalism is not always a job of gratitude: “Basically, investigative journalism is a series of battles. And you should be ready for losing many of them”.

Despite the risks involved, Rinat is determined to carry on and knows how to finally kill corruption. He explains, when journalists such as themselves, figures out a corruption scheme, or a money laundry scheme, they can quickly launch new investigations that are built on previous ones. This leads to that corrupted officials find it harder and harder to stay corrupt and not get caught. Rinat says “If someone chooses to be involved in corruption, he should need to make great sacrifices, hide and be on the run. When corruption becomes difficult and risky, we hopefully see less people involved in it. That is how we win.”