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

Kyrgyz Media Problems Reflect Regional Trend

Rights organisations are unanimous that media freedom is under serious attack across Central Asia.
By IWPR Central Asia
Media-watchers in Kyrgyzstan are voicing alarm over what they say is the disturbing decline of freedom of speech and the media. The trend fits a wider pattern of deterioration across Central Asia, but is especially worrying since the Kyrgyz media have generally enjoyed more liberty than those in neighbouring states.

In February, several international organisations including the United States-based Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Freedom House released reports expressing concern at the state of human rights in Central Asia, and particularly about the future of media freedom in the region.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ, voiced alarm at the worsening situation in Kyrgyzstan.

“One well-known editor has been killed while other journalists work in a situation of increased persecutions by the government, violence and lawlessness,” said CPJ’s February report.

The death was that of Alisher Saipov, who ran the Uzbek-language Siyosat (“Politics”), before he was murdered in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh in October.

The newspaper was widely read both among the ethnic Uzbeks of southern Kyrgyzstan and in nearby Uzbekistan.

Saipov’s killers have not been identified. However, the secret services in Uzbekistan are suspected of involvement, as the journalist frequently reported on abuses committed by the regime there.

CPJ also noted a growing pattern of intimidation of media within Kyrgyzstan.

It cited several examples such as the police crackdown on opposition newspapers including Agym, Kyrgyz Ruhu, Apta and Aykyn following street protests in April 2007. According to observers, police confiscated print-runs and electronic copies on CD without obtaining court orders or warrants.

CPJ also reported an increase in the intimidation of Kyrgyz journalists, through anonymous phone calls and physical assaults on reporters.

During last April’s opposition rallies, when protesters demanded constitutional reform and the resignation of President Kurmanbek Bakiev, at least five journalists were attacked. It was never established whether the violence was the handiwork of opposition supporters or pro-government forces.

While noting that pressures were building on media all over Central, Human Rights Watch expressed similar concerns about the Kyrgyz situation.

The group blames the administration of President Bakiev, who came to power after the March 2005 “tulip revolution”, for the worsening climate.

Oleg Gant, a Moscow-based media expert on Central Asia, agrees that the most dramatic upturn in official pressure on the Central Asian media outlets occurred in Kyrgyzstan.

Gant said the country’s leadership risked triggering the same kind of anti-authoritarian backlash that toppled Bakiev’s predecessor, Askar Akaev, in 2005.

“The saddest situation is in Kyrgyzstan, and the dynamics of it are absolutely horrific,” Gant told IWPR. “The pressure on the press was the most vigorous and powerful, and was absolutely unconcealed.”

He concluded, “The president is now doing things that will eventually lead to him sharing Akaev’s fate.”

The March revolution of 2005 was accompanied by demands for greater media freedom, an end to government interference and the conversion of the state television into a genuine public-service broadcaster.

Lilian Darii, the acting head of the OSCE mission in Bishkek, told IWPR that some aspects of the state of freedom of expression were cause for concern.

“For the first time, a journalist has been killed in Kyrgyzstan,” he said, referring to Saipov’s assassination, “while several journalists have been forced to leave the country and seek political asylum in Europe.”

Darii added, “We call upon the state leadership and law-enforcement agencies to conduct thorough investigations, and publish the results, in the cases of Alisher Saipov, Kayrat Birimkulov and other journalists who have been the victims of violence.”

Birimkulov, a former reporter for Kyrgyz state television and radio, was beaten up last March by two unidentified attackers.

He maintains the assault was directly related to his reporting activities, as it followed a series of programmes he produced on corruption in government and on mismanagement of Kyrgyz national railways.

The rail company filed a libel case against Birinkulov, and in October, seven months after the assault on him, he left the country after winning asylum in Switzerland.

Shamaral Maychiev, who is Kyrgyzstan’s Media Representative, a non-government position that functions as unofficial ombudsman for the sector, warns that the decline of media independence will have far-reaching effects.

“Democracy helps to bring about faster development,” he said. “Unless they have reliable information, businesses that are largely responsible for developing the country can’t work effectively.”

In Kyrgyzstan’s near neighbour Kazakstan, Human Rights Watch noted chronic problems like the criminalisation of libel, which place significant curbs on journalists’ freedom to report, and attempts by the authorities to control the internet by suspending or refusing to register news sites.

Access to several sites was blocked last year because of their coverage of the conflict between President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his disgraced former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev.

While the Kazak authorities have said they might review the provision that libel can be prosecuted under criminal rather than civil law, Tajikistan last year extended the application of its criminal libel law to cover internet publications.

While few journalists the change will lead to many successful prosecutions, there are fears it will encourage and strengthen a the marked tendency towards self-censorship.

Nuriddin Karshibaev, head of the National Association of Independent Mass Media of Tajikistan, said legal changes including broadening libel laws and making it an offence to gather information about the president’s private life were serious weapons against media freedom.

“Unfortunately, our objections to changes to the criminal code were not heeded,” said Karshibaev.

Dushanbe-based media expert Marat Mamadshoev is equally pessimistic about the situation in Tajikistan.

“If the situation with freedom of speech remains unchanged, we could roll back to the position we were in during the Soviet era of 40 or 50 years ago, and we know what the result of that was,” he said

CPJ suggested that regressive trends in Russia, still the dominant power in the region, had inspired Central Asian governments to amend their laws to broaden the scope for prosecuting journalists.

It said Russia was exercising a generally negative influence on Central Asia in terms of rights and freedoms.

Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan remain the “worst of the worst” of former Soviet states in terms of freedom of speech.

CPJ agreed, asserting that since the 2005 bloodshed in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan, when government forces opened fire on demonstrators, it has become “not only dangerous but illegal” for locals to work or report for international media.

The Uzbek government in Tashkent appears to have succeeded in its strategy of eliminating all sources of information except its own heavily controlled and censored press.

There are experts who contend that human rights organisations are exaggerating the scale of the threat and the speed of change.

Alexander Knyazev, a professor of political science and international journalism at Bishkek’s Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University, says freedom of speech has not changed appreciably for several years anywhere in Central Asia.

“The level of freedom that was established in the late Nineties in each state [in the region] remains in place today,” he said.

Gant, however, insists that freedom of speech is shrinking and that this will have a wider impact on society and prosperity in the Central Asian states.

“A free press and freedom of speech are the most powerful engines of economic, political and social progress,” he said.

“Now, however, media throughout the region merely serve the political and economic interests of those at the top.”

Elina Karakulova is IWPR’s chief editor for Central Asia, based in Bishkek. Parvina Hamidova is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

More IWPR's Global Voices