Asaba Closure Outrage

Tensions rise between Kyrgyz media and the authorities after latest press crackdown.

Asaba Closure Outrage

Tensions rise between Kyrgyz media and the authorities after latest press crackdown.

It's been a bad month for supporters of a civil society in Kyrgyzstan.

The government halted publication on March 6 of the most popular Kyrgyz-language newspaper Asaba, a traditional home for opposition views.

The move followed a series of crippling fines levied against the paper, undoubtedly intended to bring it to its knees.

Financial penalties are just one weapon used to block the independent press. In the past, printing houses - who are dependent on government support - have been mysteriously unable to produce newspapers because of "defective paper", "lack of printing plates" and other dubious reasons.

International concerns over curbs on press freedom have grown since Asaba's closure.

The campaigning organisations Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute wrote to President Askar Akaev expressing their alarm at his actions.

Fears of a further crackdown on the independent media and democracy activists were fuelled by a number of subsequent incidents, which occurred on the same day, March 13 - to become known as Black Tuesday.

First, there was an attack on the leader of the non-government organisation Democracy and Civil Society, Tolekan Ismailova, who was punched in the face and knocked down. Most observers think she was deliberately targeted.

The National Communications Agency demanded that an independent channel, Osh-TV, stop broadcasting - even though the station's court appeal against the authorities' decision two years ago to force it to change frequency has yet to be heard.

Government officials, citing mass media legislation, which is vague on the rules and procedures for closing down media outlets, say their move against the channel is perfectly legal.

For years, journalists have vainly tried to amend the legislation ensuring that newspapers and broadcasters are only shut after all judicial appeals have been exhausted.

Also on Black Tuesday, the Supreme Court postponed the scheduled hearing of imprisoned politician Topchubek Turgunaliev, who has languised in jail for five years without trial.

And a district court overruled its earlier decision to free local journalist Moldosali Ibragimov, sentenced last June to two years in jail and fined $2000 for writing an article critical of a local judge.

Ibragimov had successfully challenged the original conviction - the jail sentence was waived and the fine reduced to $200.

But the offended judge appealed to the Supreme Court, which instructed the district court to review its decision, whereupon the two-years prison term was reinstated and the fine restored to $2000.

The case along with the explosion of lawsuits against newspapers and broadcasters has increased tension between the mass media and the authorities.

Previously, a hefty 10 per cent tax on launching lawsuits (it costs, for instance, $10,000 to claim for $100,000 in damages) made it impossible for even deputies to go to court.

But after extensive lobbying, the lower house of parliament passed a law reducing the 10 per cent levy to a flat tax of 20 soms (10 cents), with offended parties free to demand millions in compensation.

Relations between the media and authorities are now so bad, senior government official Osmonakun Ibragimov agreed to meet media representatives to try to diffuse tensions.

He promised to look into the Ibragimov case, and to lift blocking measures on papers such as Asaba and the weekly opposition paper Respublika.

Journalists remain sceptical, but defiant. After Asaba's closure, its editor Melis Eshimkanov worked with Republika on the production of 10,000 copies of a jointly edition.

It was also subsequently blocked, but the editors and their colleagues on other newspapers and radio and television stations have vowed to continue the fight for more press freedom.

Kuban Mambetaliev is an IWPR contributor

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