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Kyrgyz Media Rebuff Allegations of Rumour-Mongering

Journalist called in for questioning over an article suggesting the president might be unwell.
By IWPR staff
After the Kyrgyz authorities accused the media of spreading misinformation about President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s recent absence from political life, journalists hit back, saying it was the government’s fault for being uncommunicative.



Media-watchers interviewed by IWPR say the dispute is indicative of the poor relationship between government and the media, and some fear it reflects an overall decline in freedom of speech.



After the popular Russian-language Central Asia news site Ferghana.ru published an article on March 18 speculating about whether President Bakiev’s month-long absence was because he was in poor health, its local representative Sultan Kanazarov was questioned by officers of the National Security Committee, KNB.



According to an op-ed published later on Ferghana.ru, during the March 26 interrogation, Kanazarov was pressured to disclose sources for the story. KNB officers reportedly told him that the original article was untrue and had given rise to speculation about the president’s health.



The Ferghana-ru piece came out two days after Bakiev was due to return from leave in Germany on March 16. At the time it was published, there were already rumours going around that he was undergoing medical treatment. In the end, the president was away for almost a month, between March 3 and 28.



Bakiev’s press office consistently denied the reports that his absence had anything to do with his health, but on his return, the president gave an interview in which he revealed that he had in fact undergone a course of treatment.



In his April 1 op-ed, Ferghana.ru’s chief editor Daniil Kislov wrote, “We regard the unjustified accusations made against the Ferghana.ru representative… as a case of open pressure on the media, on journalists and on freedom of speech.”



He rejected the KNB’s suggestion that Ferghana-ru had spun the story out of thin air, adding, “It is the silence of officials, the vacuum of information from the authorities, that has given rise to various rumours about the state of the president’s health.”



Kanazarov told IWPR that formal charges had not been brought against him or the news agency.



“If we had broken the law, official charges would have been laid,” he said, agreeing with Kislov that the problem lay not with the media but with the dearth of information available from the government and its spokesmen.



When he arrived back in Bishkek, Bakiev told the Moscow newspaper Vremya Novostey that he did not have to account for his whereabouts, and suggested that rumours that his health was poor were being spread by the opposition.



After opposition parties failed to win seats in parliament in an election held in December, some groups set up an informal body called the “Alternative Parliament”. Others formed a more radical underground Revolutionary Committee, which called on Bakiev to resign by a deadline of March 24, the anniversary of the “Tulip Revolution” which brought him and his allies to power in 2005.



Opposition groups are concerned about the implications of the criticism directed at Ferghana.ru. The Ar-Namys party, for example, issued a statement on April 1 questioning remarks that Bakiev made at a cabinet meeting, where he urged law-enforcement agencies to exercise control over the media.



“This statement could be interpreted as an attempt to pressurise the handful of remaining independent press outlets,” party member Vitaly Iskakov told IWPR. “We are witnessing a setback not only in freedom of speech, but also in the democratic principles we had in the Nineties. We are now under a soft dictatorship – and the media are the first target under dictatorship.”



Ilim Karypbekov, the director of the Media Representative Institute, a non-government watchdog organisation, takes a different view, saying there is no reason for the media to panic. He believes the president’s concerns were specifically about the rumours around his health, but predicted that “strict action against the media is unlikely to follow”.



Elena Voronin of Interbilim, a support group for local non-government groups, says the mystery that surrounded Bakiev’s long absence is symptomatic of a broader problem.



“The information vacuum that appeared during the president’s absence shows that the government has little trust in its people, and that it is actually afraid of its people. They are afraid the public will take action if certain information is released,” she said.



Describing the questioning of Kanazarov as “outrageous”, she said officials “know no bounds” and are “employing the authoritarian methods of Stalinist times”.

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