Courts Target Kyrgyz Papers

Kyrgyz independent newspapers have been rocked by a barrage of court cases

Courts Target Kyrgyz Papers

Kyrgyz independent newspapers have been rocked by a barrage of court cases

Kyrgyzstan's two main independent newspapers face possible closure as they struggle against a barrage of lawsuits - the administration's weapon of choice in its campaign to silence its critics.

The Kyrgyz-language Asaba and the Russian-language Delo No (Case Number) are the most widely read newspapers in Kyrgyzstan and the only ones prepared to publish material critical of the government of President Askar Akaev.

"Ten years have passed since 'perestroika' and the independence of Kyrgyzstan yet we are back to where we started!" Svetlana Krasilnikova, Deputy Editor of Delo No, told IWPR. " We are back to the strangling of freedom of speech and the strangling of the independent mass media."

"All of these lawsuits against the newspapers - which, it should be pointed out, were all instigated by high-ranking officials - confirm this."

Analysts believe the legal campaign against the newspapers is in part due to their involvement in opposition politics - Asaba Editor-in-Chief Melis Eshimkanov stood as a candidate in the recent presidential elections and Delo No provided extensive coverage of the closed-court hearings against former vice- president and opposition leader Felix Kulov, who was charged last March with abuse of power.

The man leading the campaign is Deputy Minister of National Security General Boris Poluektov. A senior figure in the National Security Service - the former Soviet KGB - Poluektov was recently rewarded for his diligence with a presidential decoration and a promotion.

The minister is personally supervising the central case against Delo No, in which its editor-in-chief Victor Zapolski, his deputy Krasilnikova and correspondent Vadim Nochyovkin are charged with divulging state secrets in their coverage of the Kulov case - dismissed by a military court but could be reintroduced.

The three have been forced to sign an undertaking not to leave the country. They face a five-year ban on practicing journalism and up to two years imprisonment.

Poluektov is also pressing a personal lawsuit against Nochyovkin and the editorial staff of Delo No following its publication of a report about his involvement in a criminal case related to the copper business.

Poluektov is seeking punitive damages of two million Som (about US$ 40,000) and an order to prosecute Nochyovkin for criminal misconduct on the grounds of insulting an official. He has made no attempt to refute the facts used by the journalists. The editorial staff won the case in the district court but Poluektov has appealed against the decision in the Bishkek city court.

Delo No is embroiled in another lawsuit. Brought by the Head of Presidential Administration Misir Ashirkulov, who in 1998-99 was in charge of the Ministry of National Security, it concerns an interview Zapolski gave to the weekly Komsomolskaya Pravda in Kyrgyzstan in which he claimed the ministry fabricated criminal cases against its opponents.

Ashirkulov is demanding US$ 84,000 in punitive damages from Delo No and Komsomolskaya Pravda, including US$ 20,000 from Zapolski himself.

"I believe that I'm doing, everything I can for my republic and not because of some political sympathies or personal benefits, but out of kindness and justice," said Zapolski.

The Kyrgyz-language Asaba is under pressure as well. It has been ordered to pay one and a half million Som (about US$ 30,000) to the gold ore giant Kyrgyzaltyn - which enjoys special government privileges - after losing a lawsuit over the publication of a book about President Akaev.

The newspaper was fined by the tax authorities in 1997 for failing to declare a loan, organized by the government, to pay for publishing the book, and Kyrgyzaltyn has now won its case seeking repayment of the loan.

Asaba has also been sued by an MP and former high-ranking Soviet-era government official for damaging his reputation and dignity. It has been ordered by the district court to pay him five million Som, or about US$ 100,000. In addition, each Asaba journalist whose reports mentioned the MP's name was ordered to pay US$ 200, about 10 months salary.

There is no legal mechanism to decide the amount of punitive damages in Kyrgyzstan. The amount of compensation is decided solely by the plaintiff. The only people who bring punitive damages actions are MPs and high-ranking government officials.

As well as lawsuits, the authorities have also taken to unplanned tax inspections to put pressure on opposition newspapers.

In the second half of last year, Delo No was put through a series of such inspections, which resulted in the newspaper being fined US$ 28,000 for what was claimed to have been unpaid VAT.

Asaba, which had been fighting for three years against a tax inspectors' fine of two million Som (about US$ 40,000), finally won its case last September. During the long months of investigation, the state-owned newspapers, radio stations and TV channels relentlessly accused the opposition newspaper of "hiding its millions while poor people of Kyrgyzstan were sitting without pensions and allowances".

Eshimkanov says he is grateful that the newspaper finally won the case against the tax authorities, but he is concerned about the outcome of the punitive damages action, which is currently under appeal.

"The newspaper simply doesn't have such money," he said. "I have no desire to sell the newspaper, but starting a revolution is not a way out either. The only thing that is left to do is to emigrate and to continue publishing the newspaper abroad. To leave with some core staff - 4 or 5 people - and to put Asaba on the Internet."

Delo No Deputy Editor Krasilnikova is of a similar mind. "We are practically being kicked out, " she said. " They are trying to deprive us of all that we've created in the last decade. If persecutions do not stop, we'll be forced to seek political asylum in one of the democratic countries of the world."

But her Editor-in-Chief Zapolski is determined to stand his ground. "I don't want to seek political asylum... Because I just do not want to leave my country. I was born and raised here and I want to stay."

"Today we are only supported by the people, our readers. We recently started receiving numerous letters and each of them starts with the same statement that people find out the truth only from our newspaper and that they trust us."

"But if people stop buying the newspaper - and, unfortunately, this may happen due to purely economic circumstances - then our newspaper will really die away."

Zapolski complains that printing costs and the price of newsprint - which are controlled by the state - are rising excessively. "If things continue to develop in the same direction and if people become even more impoverished, there will be no progress: the industry and other spheres won't start working and this will be the end of the freedom of speech."

In August, the Paris-based journalism organization Reporteurs Sans Frontiers protested to President Akaev about the persecution of the staff of Delo No, saying the investigations undertaken against the newspaper were simply an attempt to silence the independent media.

"I would like to appeal to those international journalism organizations which believe in the revival of our republic, " said Zapolski. "Today we need your help - moral as well as material - more then at any other time. Otherwise we may forever loose our right to think freely and our right to freely express these thoughts."

Svetlana Suslova is a regular IWPR contributor

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