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Comment: Media Curbs in Place Ahead of Elections

As the authorities prepare for crucial elections in 2005, the limits on media freedom have already been set.
By Kuban Mambetaliev

Kyrgyzstan is preparing itself for the radical changes which are due to take place in 2005. The parliamentary and presidential elections will be fateful events for the country. And the media will play a key role in these processes.

The civil-society sector, which is oriented towards democratic values, is striving to see the principles of free speech and a free press become truly established.

The administration, which leans towards authoritarian values, seeks to restrict those same principles. The authorities have succeeded in putting restrictions in place to a considerable degree.

The conflict between state and non-state media continues.

The newspaper war rages on, and it will continue until media serfdom is abolished, until government bodies lose the right to keep journalists as servants of the state administration, and until the head of state loses his right to personally appoint and sack newspaper editors and the head of the television and radio corporation.

The most influential of the republic’s broadcast media are three TV channels which use metric wave frequency –the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Broadcast Corporation, KTR, the Kyrgyz Public Educational Radio and Television, KOORT, and Piramida-TV. The remaining television channels broadcast in the microwave range, which limits their coverage area to one town.

The largest audience coverage – practically 90 per cent of the republic’ population – belongs to KTR, which is owned by the state and fully controlled by the President of Kyrgyzstan (he alone can appoint and dismiss the management, cut or increase the budget, and assign or remove buildings). This major propaganda machine is now in the hands of the head of state.

KOORT is part of a media holding that belongs to businessman Adil Toigonbaev, son-in-law of Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev. This channel’s creative output is kept within certain limits. It has a coverage area of Bishkek plus three regions.

In 2004, Piramida-TV joined the Areopag holding and, observers claim, completely lost its independence. The channel is undergoing changes to the format and content of its political and social programming, with a new orientation towards red tape. It broadcasts to Bishkek, Osh and Chui regions.

The emergence of new broadcast media has been brought to a halt by the regulatory body. In 2001, the State Radio Frequencies Commission decided to start issuing frequencies through competition. They then spent three years developing the regulations for holding such a competition. In 2004, the commission took a different decision – to issue frequencies by auction instead of competition. So now they are going to spend another three years drafting regulations for that.

In the meantime, applications for frequencies are gathering dust. Licenses of existing broadcast companies have expired. Now they are having them extended for three months. The law on broadcast licenses says the minimum term should be two years. But our republic is about to have elections, so a three-month limit has been established to help keep the television and radio on a short leash during the parliamentary and presidential ballots.

At the end of the day, the republic is left without a single major television channel that can broadcast freely, depict the realities of life in an accurate manner, or defend the principles of freedom of information. And there are no prospects of such channels appearing until the end of 2005.

That means that in election year, the main TV channels will be harnessed to the state, and will not go beyond the instructions given by the top echelons of power.

The print media is not subject to a system of auctions or licenses. Instead, the measures used to curb it are lawsuits filed by representatives of the authorities who are quick to find that their reputation has been damaged by those newspapers that are independent of the head of state.

Judges, who are also dependent on the head of state - he alone appoints and dismisses them- are swift to satisfy the demands made by such “loyal plaintiffs”.

Unlike television channels, non-state national newspapers are able to provide sound and objective coverage of public life and defend the freedom of speech and thought. They are doing this now, and constantly battling with state newspapers.

In election year, it will be the non-state newspapers that will be the main mouthpiece of democracy. MSN, Litsa, Respublika, Tribuna, Demokrat, Delo No., Agym, Aalam and others are all battle-hardened print publications.

The existence of the American printing house where most of them are currently printed provides an additional guarantee that they will be able to sustain their output.

There are also established foreign media in Kyrgyzstan. The field is dominated by Azattyk radio - the Kyrgyz service of Radio Liberty - that broadcasts daily from Prague. It plays an outstanding role during crises, covering tragic events and their consequences professionally and reliably. This was clearly demonstrated during the Aksy events, when peaceful protesters were shot. The reporting was so uncomfortable for the authorities that they angrily accused Azattyk of “waging information terrorism on Kyrgyzstan”.

BBC radio is also an established broadcaster in the republic. IWPR is now playing a very significant role in information provision.

Popular Russian newspapers include Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moskovsky Komsomolets, Argumenty i Fakty, and Rossiyskaya Gazeta. In Kyrgyzstan they are published with special local supplements.

But during the parliamentary and presidential elections, foreign media will be limited by the electoral code, which this year had a regulation added to it - article 30, point 7 - banning “pre-electoral propaganda” in foreign media distributed within the country.

It’s pretty clear that this restriction has been put in place to paralyse the work of independent journalists during the elections. As Byubyukan Dosalieva, an Azattyk correspondent, said, “Central Electoral Commission members constantly accuse us of being subjective, even though our journalists merely state the facts. Finally, the commission has managed to ensure that our opportunity to cover the elections will be limited.”

These restrictions are unlikely to be lifted. The electoral code contains another ban: article 31, point 3 reads, “From the moment candidates are registered, it is forbidden for media to publish opinion polls, election forecasts, and other research linked to elections”. All efforts by democratically-minded people to remove this damaging regulation from the code have proved fruitless. The election commission will monitor observance of the code, and special working groups are being created to restrict freedom of speech and press during the elections.

Alexander Kulinsky, a popular anchorman at the Piramidov channel, has offered an apt description of the environment created by these bans and restrictions: “The code will be interpreted in a manner beneficial to the election commission. These documents won’t need to be observed by government-run or pro-government media, and they wouldn’t have any problems if they did.

“But independent media will be given short shrift as soon as we make the slightest mistake.”

Kulinsky is absolutely right. That is what happened at the last elections. The last parliamentary and presidential elections, in February and October 2000 respectively, demonstrates that all prohibitive rules were created exclusively in order to curb independent journalists.

The authorities will no doubt make good use of that experience in the forthcoming elections.

Kuban Mambetaliev is a chairman of the Public Association of Journalists.

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