Disappointment at Kyrgyz Media Law Changes

Broadcasters say they lack the resources to ensure half their output is in Kyrgyz.

Disappointment at Kyrgyz Media Law Changes

Broadcasters say they lack the resources to ensure half their output is in Kyrgyz.

A year after passing a controversial media law, the Kyrgyzstan parliament has amended it, without fixing what critics said were its worst features.

The amendments passed on April 21 leave two of the most widely disputed stipulations in place – the requirements that half of broadcast output has to be in the Kyrgyz language rather than Russian, and that broadcasters have to generate rather than buy in half of their overall output.

Private TV and radio stations say these provisions threaten their existence as they do not have the resources to produce more than they do now.

The day after the amendments were passed, over 30 media organisations wrote to President Kurmanbek Bakiev asking him to use his powers as final arbiter to strike out Article 8 of the law, which contains the stipulations they object to.

The law generated the same kind of controversy when it was passed exactly a year ago. See Kyrgyz Media Bill Goes Back to Square One, RCA No. 544, 02-May-08.)

At the time, opponents of the bill argued that the law contradicted other legislation and Kyrgyzstan’s constitution, and was liable to reduce the scope for freedom of expression.

Despite these objections, President Bakiev signed off on the law last June, albeit with the proviso that it should be subject to amendment as further comments and recommendations were submitted, and he set up a working group to oversee this process.

“The law was in rough shape, and media companies immediately raised a lot of questions about it, for instance on the language restriction, on the distribution of frequencies and on [procedures for] re-registering media outlets,” recalled Bermet Usenova, who heads the Institute of the Media Representative, a non-government watchdog group.

Usenova noted that the working group, including representatives of the media, parliament and government, it duly spent the period between December and April hammering out compromise wordings on the more sensitive parts of the law..

According to Roman Milovatsky, the head of the Association of Radio and Television of Kyrgyzstan, 80 per cent of these recommendations were duly incorporated into the amendments as passed.

“We drafted regulations for the licensing agencies and for the distribution of unallocated TV and radio frequencies,” he told IWPR. “These amendments could double the number of TV channels and radio stations.”

But one set of recommendations was ignored. The working committee agreed that the rule requiring broadcasters to produce half their output themselves, and half of their material in Kyrgyz, should be phased in over three years, so that the initial requirement would be for 20 rather than 50 per cent.

However, when the parliamentary committee handling the amendments put them forward for a vote, it cut out this provision.

Milovatsky said, “The fact that the parliamentarians left Article 8 in force cancels out all the rest of the amendments. Under these circumstances it is doubtful that the existing TV and radio companies will survive, let alone new ones. Right now the provincial radio stations don’t even put out local news because their budgets are very tight. They’re forced to carry weekly rather than daily news bulletins. And that means the proportion of output they generate themselves is two per cent, maximum.”

Tilekan Asanova, acting head of Piramida, one of the leading private TV stations, confirmed that it did not have the resources to generate large amounts of original material or to ensure half of it was in Kyrgyz.

“Production and reporting costs a lot of money,” she said. “Given that the advertising market is limited, we cannot afford to increase our output to 50 per cent.”

Kadyrbek Abdraev of the culture and information ministry notes that not only do stations lack the funds to make their own programmes, there are no independent production studios that they could commission to make this material for them.

The language issue is an emotive one, and the parliamentarians who supported the law in its present shape were clearly trying to promote the use of Kyrgyz in an environment where much of what is produced domestically, on top of the Moscow channels that are popular here, is in Russian.

Ibrahim Junusov from the governing party Ak Jol, for example, was insistent that linguistic parity should not be phased in.

“We live in Kyrgyzstan so it is quite offensive to ask for this requirement to be lowered to 20 per cent,” he said in an interview for the Bishkek Press Club. “Some of our voters are saying we should make it even more and have 70 or 80 per cent of total airtime in Kyrgyz,”

Again, the principal objections to the 50 per cent Kyrgyz requirement come down to resources, and the shortage of journalists and presenters with sufficient fluency in the language.

As Abdraev put it, the members of parliament who pushed for the stipulation seemed to forget what the financial implications would be.

He said that the media were moving in the right direction anyway and just needed to be “given time to make a smooth transition to the 50 per cent level.”

Milovatsky agreed, adding, “A few years ago, seven out of every ten newspapers were in Russian and the other three in Kyrgyz. Now the situation’s changed, and it’s definitely the other way around.”

A phased introduction would allow this to happen naturally, he said, explaining how “owners would move to accommodate the consumer and we’d hit the 50 per cent mark not in three years, but in much less time – a year or 18 months. But it’s essential to allow time, and not to demand an instantaneous switch.”.

Some media-watcher are concerned that the new requirements could be misused to close down broadcasters which the authorities do not like. As things stand, said Asanova, “many of the TV and radio companies are outside the law”.

The main criticism of the latest version of the media law is therefore as much about timing as about content. Analysts agree that private broadcasters are not yet strong enough to meet the stringent requirements for original content and Kyrgyz-language material, and forcing them into rapid change will simply drive production values down.

“People will prefer to watch cable TV to poor-quality programmes from [Kyrgyzstan] channels,” said Milovatsky.

Asyl Osmonalieva is an IWPR-trained reporter in Bishkek.

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