Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Media Accused of Bias

Watchdog claims that outlets wilfully ignore both legal norms and informal ethical codes.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • (Photo courtesy of N. Musaeva)
    (Photo courtesy of N. Musaeva)
  • Election debates on the main TV channel KTRK. (Photo: KTRK)
    Election debates on the main TV channel KTRK. (Photo: KTRK)

The Kyrgyz media has largely failed to uphold basic standards of journalistic ethics during the ongoing presidential election campaign, according to a monitoring expert.

Nurzhan Musaeva is a lawyer with the Media Development Centre PF, which monitors media across Kyrgyzstan for their compliance with both legal norms and unofficial ethical codes.

She said that print and broadcast media had both failed to properly distinguish between political advertising and news in their coverage of the presidential elections. Musaeva noted that rumour and assumption had been uncritically presented as fact and that various outlets had been unduly biased in their endorsements.

There are 11 candidates competing in the October 15 elections, although the frontrunners are millionaire businessman Omurbek Babanov and former prime minister Sooronbai Zheenbekov. The latter is widely believed to be the preferred candidate of current president Altmabek Atambaev.

The Media Development Centre PF is to publish a full report after the election on October 15, but Musaeva said that one of their recommendations would be to introduce legislation to formalise standards of media best practice.

How have TV channels covered the Kyrgyz election process?

Nurzhan Musaeva: The situation with state-owned and private TV channels has been very much alike. TV channels have failed to follow the principle of separating news programmes from marketing material. Promotional content has been broadcast during news programmes, with the same presenters in the same studio. According to the principles of ethical journalism, promotional materials should be clearly separated from news and presented by different TV presenters in different studios. OTRK in particular has failed to adhere to this principle just as its news programme has, Ala Too 24. This means that promotional material has been presented back-to-back with news without any interval. We would like to emphasise that Yntymak TV distinguished itself from other channels by adhering to [ethical] principles and it separated the news segment from the promotional segment, which was presented by another TV presenter in another studio.

OTRK has also subtly promoted Babanov and [outlier candidate Bakyt ] Torobaev. The TV programme Oy Ordo, broadcast on September 11, had Babanov as the guest, and the TV presenter showed clear partiality towards this candidate.

What has characterised the coverage of main contenders Zheenbekov and Babanov?

NM:  I saw one video on Ala Too 24, which was broadcast on Channel 5. In the news segment after the debates, they began to criticise Babanov while Zheenbekov was presented in a good light, particularly as regards the Safe City project [a scheme to place 1,750 CCTV cameras around Bishkek]. This was a clear violation. It means that right after the news bloc about the Safe City Project they placed a piece of debates in the Kyrgyz language where Zheenbekov asked Babanov a question, but the reporter started to translate the words of Zheenbekov omitting the words of Babanov. This is a violation because the Russian-speaking audience couldn’t understand what Babanov was talking about. Thus, a one-sided message was conveyed.

Balance should be maintained everywhere, especially in news, [but] the principles of objectivity, balance and impartiality are often ignored. After the [presidential] debates, they placed a story about a small investigation where they slammed Babanov by saying that [one of his supporters] allegedly gave out weapons, and they also showed the relevant article from the electronic version of the Vecherny Bishkek newspaper and showed the headline repeatedly. This is an open, not even a hidden, smear campaign…. OTRK, unfortunately, commits violations, but unlike other channels it is a public channel.

What are the differences compared with previous parliamentary elections?

NM: The violations were generally the same. We find that there is a gap in the legislation as it doesn’t set forth the provision that promotional material should be clearly separated from the main news. This is a part of ethical norms… but not all media outlets have such a policy. We need to introduce it legislatively, and this will be our recommendation. As for whether our recommendations are taken into account, not all [media managers] are responsive. But we will keep on working over this issue.

To what extent are media consumers influenced by coverage during an election campaign?

NM: It depends on the region. A large-scale survey should be conducted to find out. Generally speaking, our people don’t have well-developed critical thinking. They are exposed to one-sided news and take it seriously. So this area of media literacy should be promoted amongst the population and their critical thinking should be developed.

Here [in Bishkek] people are more advanced in their thinking. They can check facts on the internet, but [in the regions] they have no opportunity to do this, so TV channels that work throughout the republic make use of it.

An ordinary person, viewer, or radio listener can find it difficult to distinguish between the news and the campaign, ie they see the campaign as the piece of news. All information affects the formation of public opinion about any person.

How does coverage vary across different media outlets?

Online outlets don’t often commit violations. Radio stations mainly present positive or neutral information, and very little negative information…. But you can tell for sure who owns a newspaper or who stands for whom. If funds are available, candidates buy [content in] newspapers, so they write about the candidates in the right way. The promotional material is not always marked as what it is.

Kyrgyz newspapers often violate ethical codes. They can publish an article with an obvious preference to any candidate or, vice versa, use a smear campaign and make ad hominem attacks. And they do it openly. Not all of them, but there are such newspapers.

Speaking about the norms, the law on presidential elections in the Kyrgyz Republic mandates that media and online outlets may not publish one-sided information about candidates and keep silent about other candidates for two or more consecutive times, and that secondly they may not use deliberate misrepresentation to shape a certain attitude among voters. These are two points that our media often violate.

We do have a code of journalism ethics. It contains very good standards that are not often met, unfortunately.