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Kyrgyzstan: Boost for Media Freedom

Independent printing press opens for business in the capital despite government reservations.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Jennifer Windsor, Executive Director of Freedom House at the opening of the first independent printing press in Kyrgyzstan.
Dummy copies of the first printed newsapper
Photos: Dinara Makesheva, Bishkek

A new internationally-funded printing press will open up a new era of media freedom in Kyrgyzstan, journalists and opposition figures claim.The authorities have given a cautious welcome to the new venture, as it has effectively been forced on them by Washington to which Kyrgyzstan is heavily indebted.

The project will run in direct competition to a state printing press accused of frequently refusing to print opposition papers carrying material officials consider contentious.

The chairman of the Journalist union, Kuban Mambetaliev, described the 800,000 US dollar project as a momentous event in the development of the former Soviet republic."Independent newspapers can now breathe a sigh of relief," he said. "There is no longer a monopoly in the market of print media.

"The Independent Printing Press, which was set up by Freedom House and sponsored by the United States' Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights & Labour department, was opened on November 14 by assistant secretaries of state Elizabeth Jones and Lorne Craner.Analysts say that the new press should allow papers to publish what they like without fear of censorship from the government-supervised state printers.

A series of recent incidents involving the closure or suspension of several independent titles had underlined the need for new facilities that are independent of the state-run Uchkun press. The latter had a monopoly in the Kyrgyz market and occasionally refused to print certain papers.

The opposition Moya Stolitsa - which was later rebranded as MSN - had not been published from January 18 to May 4, 2002, after Uchkun refused to print it, citing a series of court cases brought against the publishers by the authorities.Aleksandr Kim, the editor-in-chief of MSN, believes that the creation of an independent printing press will enable the non-state media to break free from Uchkun's stranglehold, "It is not a secret that authorities used to control opposition press through [this] informal censorship - but now they won't be able to do that."Kyrgyz-language Kyrgyz Ordo has not been published for last eight months, again due to Uchkun's refusal to publish it on the basis of a court decision.

The editors-in-chief of the independent media Respublika and Tribuna have also alleged that they have been subject to "informal censorship" by Uchkun staff.On the eve of the opening of the new printing business, Stuart Kahn of Freedom House said that the censorship issue in Kyrgyzstan had become a "critical" problem.Kyrgyz Ordo's editor-in-chief Beken Nazaraliev hopes that the independent press will now be able to build and maintain an audience. "Due to frequent refusals by the state printing company, we lost many readers. Now we are able to publish regularly, we should increase our circulation," he told IWPR.Topchubek Turgunaliev, director of the Institute of Human Rights in Bishkek, said the new printing house would soon become "a Mecca" for the independent media all over Central Asia."Many opposition media in neighboring countries are also persecuted by the authorities," he said. "Now they can be published [here] and Kyrgyzstan can turn into a free press centre for the region."

Though Bolot Januzakov, head of the presidential administration's security and defence department, told IWPR that the opening of the press "highlighted the freedom and pluralism of opinions in Kyrgyzstan", many observers noted that the government representatives present at the opening didn't look happy.Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov guardedly thanked "foreign friends who in such way are contributing to consolidation of the freedom of press in the country".

Sources close to the government have hinted that the authorities are wary of the new press as they think it may have implications for national security.One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR, "We cannot rule out the possibility of extremist or pornographic literature being produced."Bishkek, however, was not able to refuse permission for the printing house to be built on its soil, as the republic is heavily dependent on US aid.

Washington has offered to give economic assistance in return for the use of Krygyz air bases and an improvement in the state's democratic record. Manas airport, which lies 30 kilometres from Bishkek, has been occupied by US-led troops since December 2001 and has already brought around 170 million dollars to the economy - a massive amount for a country with an annual budget of around 250 million dollars.Meanwhile, representatives of the government-owned media have apparently been asked to be "patriotic" and only use the state-run printing press.Esenbai Kaldarov, editor-in-chief of the pro-authority Erkin Too, told IWPR that he would not be tempted by the new facilities. "First, I consider it my duty to support the domestic enterprises; second, there is no guarantee yet that the prices of the foreign printing press would be lower than the ones of Uchkun," he said.

Uchkun press has since announced a 20 per cent drop in its prices. "We took this measure in light of the new competition," admitted its chief Kanybek Imanaliev. "Our major partners have pledged to keep using our services."Abdilamit Matisakov, editor-in-chief of the state newspaper Kyrgyz Tuusu, voiced concern that the independent printing house would use the foreign money available to it to drive local competitors out of the market.

"There is no guarantee that we will not get a new monopoly, which would put forward its own political agenda and conditions for all print media in Kyrgyzstan," he argued.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek.

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