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Kyrgyz Journalism Under Pressure on All Fronts

Tendency towards playing safe by avoiding controversial subject-matter.
By Anara Yusupova

A succession of newspaper closures and attacks on individual journalists is curbing the way press freedom is exercised in Kyrgyzstan, once regarded as the country with the most liberal media environment in Central Asia

A string of newspapers have been forced to shut down over the past couple of years, starting with the popular De Facto, whose editor Cholpon Orozobekova sought political asylum abroad after its closure in spring 2008. Another editor, Bermet Bukasheva, left the country last year, and her newspaper, Litsa, switched away from its opposition leanings under new owners.

The social-political paper Achyk Sayasat folded in summer 2009, followed by Reporter Bishkek, which had financial problems, while Uchur teetered on the brink as it faced a libel suit.

According to its own data, the interior ministry has recorded and investigated only 28 of these over the same period, and taken legal action on 23. Few of the major cases have been solved, including the murders of Alisher Saipov in 2007 and Gennady Pavlyuk in December 2009.

Meanwhile, the litany of attacks on individuals just in the last 12 months makes depressing reading. The non-government Institute of the Media Representative says that in the last four years there have been 60 attacks on journalists in Kyrgyzstan.

The names of some of the closed newspapers crop again in some of these attacks. For example, Reporter Bishkek political observer Syrgak Abdyldaev was beatened and stabbed last March, and Achyk Sayasat’s deputy director Abdivahab Moniev injured by unknown assailants last June.

The casualty statistics for the last year include an assault and robbery in March 2009 targeting Yelena Agaeeva and Ulugbek Babakulov, both of the Moskovsky Komsomolets v Kyrgyzstane; an attack on Tribuna newspaper editor Yrysbek Omurzakov in May; a serious assault in November followed by death threats against Kubanych Zholdoshev, a reporter for the Osh Shamy paper in the south of the country; and the beating in mid-December of Baltinfo news agency reporter Alexander Yevgrafov.

There have been two deaths over the last 12 months. In December, Gennadiy Pavlyuk, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan, died in the Kazak city of Almaty. He was bound and thrown out of a tall building. Friends and colleagues suspect his death had something to do with his activities in Kyrgyzstan, where he was involved in setting up an opposition-linked website.

Almaz Tashiev, a journalist in Nookat in southern Kyrgyzstan, died in hospital in July 2009, a week after being badly beaten. Eight police officers are alleged to have carried out the assault. On February 25, a judge in Nookat gave the two police officers charged with the assault two-year suspended sentences.

(For more on the security risks facing the media, see Kyrgyzstan: Concern Over Journalists’ Safety, Central Asia Human Rights Reporting, February 9, 2010.)

Such is the frequency of these attacks that the United States embassy and the OSCE’s special representative for the media have urged the Kyrgyz authorities to act.

Some journalists in the country believe the overall media environment is worse than it was a decade ago, or even five years ago when current president Kurmanbek Bakiev came to power in what became known as the “Tulip Revolution”.

“After independence [1991] we took an enormous step forward in developing the media. Now it looks like we’ve taken two steps back,” Bukasheva told IWPR, speaking from the United States where she now resides.

A journalist from the southern city of Osh, who did not want to be identified, said, “The level of freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan is extremely low. Since the revolution, we have witnessed unprecedented pressure being exerted on media and journalists. Many papers have been closed, and journalists have been threatened, brutally beaten and killed. I don’t feel safe in this context – I can’t even give my full name.”

Like others in the media interviewed for this report, the Osh-based reporter said he had stopped writing about political issues, which might have negative repercussions, and had shifted to doing softer social and economic stories.

“When they killed Alisher Saipov, we got the message. After the murder of Gennady Pavlyuk, it’s as clear as can be. Freedom of expression and human life is being devalued in this country,” he said.

Alexander Kulinsky, who heads the Media Complaints Commission, an independent self-regulation body for the profession, confirmed that many journalists were censoring themselves and avoiding difficult subjects.

“The energy sector and Islamic religious terrorism are dangerous, even forbidden subject. If you write about them, you’ll have lots of problems and they might even give you a beating,” said Kulinsky. “So there is more self-censorship.”

The extent to which senior government figures may be complicit in hounding independent media is hotly disputed.

“Journalists who dare to criticise the authorities are in physical danger, said Bukasheva. “If the police are powerless to solve high-profile crimes, it means someone omnipotent is behind them.”

Political analyst Marat Kazakpaev commented, “The situation does nothing for the image of President Bakiev’s administration. [The authorities] need to investigate all cases of attacks on and murders of media workers.”

A different perspective was offered by Sergei Masaulov, director of the presidential Institute for Strategic Analysis, who told IWPR, “All these attacks on media figures were launched by opponents of the authorities.”

Masaulov argued that the administration had “an interest in the country having an opposition and a free press”, and insisted that “journalist safety is a very important issue” which the president’s office was currently addressing.

Kyaz Moldokasymov, the editor-in-chief of the state-run newspaper Kyrgyz Tuusu, said Kyrgyzstan enjoyed freedom of the press.

“Journalists here write freely about everything,” he said. As far as safety advice for journalists was concerned, he advised “responsibility – every journalist must recheck facts a thousand times before publishing them”.

Moldokasymov pointed to the large amounts of newspapers on the market as evidence of the media’s health.

Kulinsky takes a different view of the proliferation of media, saying the avoidance of difficult subject-matter has increased the trend towards entertainment. “The Super-Info newspaper has the largest circulation in the country, and it has no political content whatsoever,” he said. “That’s an indicator of the way journalism is going.”

Some members of parliament, including from Bakiev’s Ak Jol party, are planning changes to the legislation to impose tougher penalties for attacks on media workers.

Galina Kulikova of the Ak Jol majority faction said journalist safety required “an immediate solution and extraordinary measures”.

Isa Omurkulov of the opposition Social Democrats agreed that action was needed, “Journalists are the eyes and ears of society, so they should enjoy special attention and respect from it. They should be specially protected. And anyone who endangers journalists’ security should be punished very severely by the law.”

If the proposed changes go through, Kyrgyzstan will become be the first Central Asian state to extend special protections to its journalistic community.

Anara Yusupova is a pseudonym used by a freelance reporter in Kyrgyzstan.

This article was produced under IWPR’s Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media programme, funded by the European Commission. The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.

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