Kyrgyz Journalists in Shock at Attack on Colleague

Media-watchers fear brutal assault was deliberate attempt to curb free speech.

Kyrgyz Journalists in Shock at Attack on Colleague

Media-watchers fear brutal assault was deliberate attempt to curb free speech.

A brutal attack which left a Kyrgyz reporter in intensive care with multiple stab wounds is the most alarming sign yet that journalists in this Central Asian state face high risks when they report on controversial political issues, media analysts say.

Syrgak Abdyldaev was attacked late on March 3, close to the offices of Reporter Bishkek, the newspaper for which he is political observer.

Sultan Kanazarov, who set the newspaper up, told IWPR that the reporter was left with 23 knife wounds and both arms broken.

Reporter Bishkek’s chief editor Turat Akimov said, “Abdyldaev’s condition has improved today [March 5] and he’s been moved out of intensive care into a general ward. He’s had two operations for a fractured shoulder and two broken arms.”

The Kyrgyz interior ministry, responsible for the police force, said a case of attempted murder had been opened. The ministry’s chief spokesman Rahmatillo Ahmedov told the Bishkek Press Club that police were working to identify Abdyldaev’s attackers.

Media-watchers in the country have little doubt that the attack on their colleague is directly related to his work as a journalist on an independent paper. They describe this as the latest and worse in a serious of attempts to curb freedom of speech in Kyrgyzstan.

“There’s no way a casual criminal like a robber would have inflicted 30 knife wounds,” said Marat Tokoev, who heads the national Association of Journalists in Kyrgyzstan.

Isa Omurkulov, a member of parliament from the opposition Social Democrats, spoke to Abdyldaev on March 4 and told IWPR afterwards, “He said he’d been followed that day. This was no casual attack; it was deliberate.”

Reporter Bishkek editor Kanazarov is convinced the attack was designed to send a message to the newspaper and other media outlets like it.

“The very public nature of this attack, on a busy crossroads not far from the newspaper’s offices, plus the fact that these were professionals who knew how to maim someone… amount to a strong hint to our newspaper to stop writing about politics,” he said.

Kanazarov said his colleague Abdyldaev wrote exclusively about politics, and not about murky business deals, for example, which might have prompted reprisals from the underworld.

Among the subjects he covered were a recent deal with Russia to secure a major investment in a Kyrgyz energy project, and also two apparently politically-related disappearances last September – that of Social Democratic member of parliament Ruslan Shabotoev, and a week earlier that of Bakhtiar Amirjanov, the son of Jusup Jeenbekov, another Social Democratic MP.

According to Kanazarov, “There is now an unprecedented level of pressure against journalists in Kyrgyzstan who write about issues from a different angle than one that the authorities would deem desirable. I really fear for the lives of other staff on our paper, as well as the freelance writers who work for us.”

He cited the case of one of his freelancers, Habira Majieva, who sought political asylum in Sweden after an attempted assault on her following a controversial article that appeared in November.

He insisted, “We’re in no way an opposition newspaper. We will criticise any political group and any tendency, if there’s a real reason to do so.”

Alexander Kulinsky, who heads a non-government commission that examines complaints about the media, was reluctant to comment on the case before the police finish their investigation, but noted that numerous assaults on journalists have taken place over the last couple of years.

“There were about 30 in 2006 and 2007, and six or seven in 2008,” he said. “Not one of these cases has resulted in a court passing sentence or ordering punishment.”

He added that these figures compared unfavourably with the situation under Askar Akaev, the former president ousted in a March 2005 revolution, when physical attacks on media workers were rare.

Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiev has taken personal charge of the investigation, although some in the media community are sceptical that it will come to anything.

“Ministers have taken charge of cases involving attacks on journalists several times already, but not one has been solved yet, nor have the criminals been taken to court,” commented Tokoev. “The public is getting the impression that attacks on journalist take place with impunity.”

Like other media workers and analysts, Tokoev fears attacks such as the one on Abdyldaev will have the desired deterrent effect – making journalists censor themselves to avoid suffering a similar fate.

“This case may drive others away from active journalism to writing about social affairs, simply to protect their own personal security,” he said. “What that will mean is that the public stops getting objective information and will be left scrabbling around in the dark."

Eduard Poletaev, chief editor of the Mir Yevrazii journal in Kazakstan who is familiar with the Kyrgyz political scene, suspects attacks on journalists may be intensifying in the run up to the presidential election due in Kyrgyzstan either this year or next.

In Central Asian states, he says, “at times of intense political activity and ahead of important political events, there’s a purge of people who might harm the election campaign or strike a note that resonates with the public.

There are signs that the authorities are already stepping up the pressure on media outlets.

More and more journalists are being called into the State Committee for National Security for what are officially termed “friendly chats”. They include Reporter Bishkek’s editor Akimov and Vadim Nochevkin of the popular Delo No. paper.

The De Facto and Alibi newspapers were forced to close last year under the weight of numerous court actions. Many observers see such lawsuits as a tactic which the authorities can deploy indirectly without being seen to be taking overt politically-motivated action themselves.

Mirgul Akimova is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist in Bishkek.
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