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

Kyrgyz Media Freedom: Better, But Not Perfect

Unclear whether new administration will continue liberalisation.
By Timur Toktonaliev
  • Maria Rasner, director of Internews Network in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo courtesy of M. Rasner)
    Maria Rasner, director of Internews Network in Kyrgyzstan. (Photo courtesy of M. Rasner)

Kyrgyzstan has climbed more than 50 places on the latest Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, RSF, although the media rights group notes that the improved situation is still “very fragile”.

Despite the improvements, media-watchers say too many attacks on journalists still go unpunished, and the country’s parliament seems to be quietly trying to impose tighter controls on reporting.

The Central Asian state was ranked at 108, up from 159 last year. Its nearest rival in the region was Tajikistan, 14 places behind in 122nd place. Kazakstan came 154th and Uzbekistan 157th in the index, while Turkmenistan was third from the bottom at 177th, beating only North Korea and Eritrea.

Analysts attribute Kyrgyzstan’s improvement to media-friendly government policies in 2011, following a year that saw previous president Kurmanbek Bakiev ousted, and widespread ethnic violence in the south.

“The media freedom situation nonetheless continues to be very fragile, with physical attacks on journalists and repressive initiatives in parliament,” RSF said.

Maria Rasner, director of the Internews Network in Kyrgyzstan, said the much better rating the country was given in the Press Freedom Index issued in January was partly thanks to Roza Otunbaeva, who served as interim president from April 2010 to December 2011, and relaxed the state’s grip on the media

“She left the media in peace, did not impose her own demands, and did not attempt to take control over them. The same goes for officials around her,” Rasner told IWPR, adding that the abolition of defamation as a criminal offence in July 2011 was also a positive development.

Nonetheless, Rasner warned against complacency, saying Kyrgyzstan’s improved rating was also a result of media freedom getting worse elsewhere. As authoritarian governments clamp down on journalists in the wake of unrest in the Arab world, they have slipped down the ranking and thus propelled Kyrgyzstan upwards, she said.

“It is not easy for free media in a situation like this. It is almost a natural response of any regime when it is threatened to tighten the screws,” she said.

The Kyrgyz government needs to do more to investigate attacks on journalists and further liberalise media legislation, she said.

Journalists were targeted in a wave of attacks and threatening incidents last year in the capital Bishkek and in the southern city of Osh, according to RSF.

In May 2011, two women threatened Reuters correspondent Hulkar Isamova with a knife and accused her of supporting an Uzbek community leader wanted by the authorities. Three days prior to that incident, a dozen people burst into a news agency office in Osh, threatening staff and accusing them of being spies for Uzbekistan.

Also in May, a correspondent with the Russian news agency Interfax, Jyldyz Bekbaeva, was hospitalied in Osh after being attacked by two men and two women while returning home with her two-year-old daughter. And in the following days Samat Asipov, a political TV reporter, was taken to hospital after three men beat him up.

Two state TV and radio journalists were also threatened by petrol smugglers after reporting on the black market in fuel.

Rasner said it was worrying that the Kyrgyz authorities ignored such incidents or failed to investigate them properly.

“Either the MVD [interior ministry] thinks these are politicised cases and is afraid to solve them, or it just doesn’t want any more trouble,” she said.

There are also concerns that Kyrgyzstan;s parliament tried to silence journalists covering sensitive stories in 2011.

In June 2011, parliament ordered the ministries of culture and justice and the prosecution service, to block access to online news agency following its coverage of the ethnic violence a year earlier.

The prosecutor general has not enforced the ban, saying technical problems make it impossible.

In September, parliament temporarily revoked the accreditation of journalists at the Channel Five after the TV station investigated legislators for alleged misuse of public funds. Channel Five’s problems continued in October, when parliament passed adopted a bill to nationalise the station and dedicate it to full-time parliamentary coverage.

Station staff have so far managed to ignore the decision and have continued broadcasting as before.

In November, parliament adopted a law scrapping an independent oversight council regulating the public-service broadcaster OTRK, ignoring criticism that this would lead to greater state interference and censorship.

It is unclear whether Kyrgyzstan will continue to improve press freedom, or will drift in a more repressive direction.

Otunbaeva was replaced in December by newly-elected President Almazbek Atambaev, who previously served as her prime minister.

While this was the first democratic handover of power in any Central Asian state, Rasner is uncertain about its implications for press freedom.

“At the moment everyone is watching to see the behaviour of the new president and his circle. How will parliament behave with the new balance of power?” Rasner said.

Kanybek Osmonaliev, chairman of the parliamentary committee dealing with the media, told IWPR that legislators took freedom of the press seriously.

Journalists’ safety is a concern, he said, and parliament is planning a special session where it will press prosecutors and police on the issue.

Asked about the regulatory framework for OTRK, Osmonaliev said there was no plan to replace the oversight council with a tame regulator. The interim government and parliament had taken differing views on OTRK, he said, but members of the new oversight body would be selected in a transparent and fair manner.

Osmonaliev said a parliamentary commission was still considering turning Channel Five into a public station, but no longer wanted it to cover parliament full time, he said. As for moves to block, he conceded that they were excessive.

“This is not how we should build our relationship with the private media,” he said, though he added that media outlets also need to ensure responsible reporting.

Several journalists told IWPR that they thought NGOs should be doing more to protect journalists’ interests.

Tamara Valieva, a television journalist with 15-years experience, said that while there were various organisations claiming to represent journalists, she could not remember them ever intervening to help reporters in difficulty. In addition, the Russian- and Kyrgyz-language sections of the media tended to keep themselves to themselves.

In the coming months, media freedom is likely to be low on the agenda as attention focuses on local council elections in March. Rasner said journalists should begin taking greater responsibility for their own futures.

“Journalists should learn to be more proactive in protecting their rights,” she said.

Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR editor for Kyrgyzstan.

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