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Kyrgyz President Threatens Newspaper

Opposition publication accused of “campaign of information terror” on the eve of parliamentary elections.
By IWPR Central Asia

The future of Kyrgyzstan’s influential opposition newspaper MSN is in jeopardy after President Askar Akaev announced that he intended to sue it for defamation, and encouraged others to do likewise.

On February 17, Akaev called on television viewers to follow his example and sue the newspaper and any individual journalists whose work they deem to be inaccurate or insulting to the office of the president.

Opposition activists and international observers have greeted the news with dismay, noting that the timing of the statement could have serious implications for Kyrgyzstan’s February 27 parliamentary election.

A demonstration in support of the newspaper was held in Bishkek on February 21, when activists taped their mouths shut, with a small symbolic padlock attached to the tape.

Tolekan Ismailova, leader of the Civil Society Against Corruption organisation, told IWPR that the loss of MSN could turn Kyrgyzstan “into a second Turkmenistan” – the Central Asian republic known for its media repression and isolationist regime.

“MSN is the newspaper that gives the [truth about this] country, uncovers corruption and criticises the authorities – in other words, it fulfils the role that the media should play in a democratic society,” she said.

However, the president sees the situation differently, saying, “MSN is pursuing a single-minded campaign of defaming me and my family – my wife and children – by pouring slander and lies over us.”

But MSN editor Aleksandr Kim told IWPR, “The fact that the president has called for help to [attack] the newspaper is ridiculous – and it is something that has never happened anywhere else in the world.

“This public statement is a major political mistake by Akaev, but we are glad it has been heard across the country.”

Kim told IWPR that the president had taken offence at the February 11 issue, which contained a poem called “This is the house that Akaev built”.

The poem listed companies and properties that are allegedly owned or controlled by the Akaev family, and was accompanied by a photograph of a luxurious mansion that the president allegedly built for himself.

On February 18, the president told the media that he would be prepared to drop the lawsuit and forgive the newspaper for its “campaign of information terror” if MSN published “appropriate refutations”.

But MSN and its editor remain defiant. “There will be a court hearing, we are ready for it and will naturally defend our point of view in court,” Kim told IWPR.

“I hope that they will fight us in court, openly, and not by using threats, intimidation by criminal elements or physical pressure.”

On February 24, a crowd of 20 people gathered outside MSN’s offices with placards critical of the paper’s journalists. Some attempted to get inside the building.

MSN, which was previously known as Moya Stolitsa - Novosti (My Capital – News), has had more than 50 lawsuits brought against it in the three and a half years it has been in operation – mostly instigated by state officials whose work has been criticised in print.

In the majority of cases, the courts found the journalists guilty of libel, and heavy fines were imposed.

The paper was eventually closed in 2003 after Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and around 30 citizens deluged it with libel lawsuits, and the state printing house Uchkun refused to print it any more.

However, MSN was thrown a lifeline when the United States-funded Independent Printing House opened in November 2003, and it has been printed there ever since. This week the publishers ran into trouble when their electricity was cut off. Staff said they suspected the power cut was intended to stop them publishing newspapers ahead of the election, but they were able to continue printing with the help of a generator.

But the paper’s journalists now fear that the latest threat could close MSN for good, as they believe that the courts will almost certainly find in favour of the president.

The authorities insist that the move is not an attack on the media or on freedom of speech, instead blaming MSN for persistently overstepping the mark in its coverage of the president’s affairs.

Presidential press secretary Abdil Segizbaev told IWPR that it was opposition newspapers, not the regime, which were abusing freedom of speech.

“Unfortunately, the opposition media has lost a feeling of high responsibility, and thus does enormous damage both to individual citizens and to society as a whole,” he said.

Presidential spokesman Dosaly Esenaliev said, “The campaign of information terror conducted by the newspaper MSN goes beyond the national interests of the country. The main goal of all these publications is to destabilise the situation in the country by spreading false rumours.”

This interpretation was backed by participants in the February 18 edition of the talk show Saysat (Politics), which was hosted by Kyrgyz State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov.

Ibraimov told viewers, “[MSN] wants the heads of the country to take it to court, as in doing so it will gain an enormously high rating, and its office will turn into a kind of foreign embassy or an organisation like Freedom House, and receive international grants.”

During the programme, academic Mambet Mamakeev said that he was in favour of prosecuting the newspaper and closing it down.

“Although I am a doctor and I’m supposed to save people, I would not put up with the journalists from MSN at all, in fact I would destroy them,” he was quoted as saying.

MSN is already facing a legal challenge from its state-operated rival Vecherny Bishkek, which is seeking around 175,000 US dollars in damages for what it claims was the untrue allegation that it is controlled by the president’s Kazak son-in-law Adil Toigonbaev.

Rina Prijivoit, MSN’s political editor, is not bothered by the lawsuit.

“Even a child knows that Vecherny Bishkek belongs to the president’s son-in-law. We hope that many other interesting facts will come out in court,” said Prijivoit.

“Our newspaper’s policy is to tell the truth about everything that goes on in the country. There is virtually no free press left in Kyrgyzstan, only Tribuna, Respublika, and our newspaper. Our ability to influence public opinion makes us the main opponent of the Akaev regime.”

With the parliamentary ballot imminent and presidential elections due in October, many analysts believe that the authorities’ ultimate goal is to close MSN down – and warn that the republic’s courts are unlikely to intervene to prevent this.

Edil Baisalov, head of the non-governmental coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, said, “The president is not just intimidating the free press, but the whole of civil society on the eve of parliamentary elections.

“This is the beginning of a campaign of intimidation and repression of civil freedoms by the authorities.”

MSN continues to be published, although the reduced capacity of the Independent Printing House due to the electricity outage means the paper has a smaller print run and is in black and white rather than colour.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek. Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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