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Kyrgyzstan: Opposition Paper Cries Foul
A new press freedom row has broken out in Kyrgyzstan between a popular opposition newspaper and the government, which has accused it of unfair competition.
The case has now been taken up by the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, which released a statement on October 6 accusing the government’s anti-monopoly department of “illegal interference” in media activity after it passed a controversial ruling against the Moya Stolitsa Novosti, MSN, newspaper.
The September 29 ruling accused MSN of “continued monopolistic actions in setting and maintaining low prices or predatory pricing designed to restrict competition”. The department’s final report also alleged that the company was selling its product at around half its advertised price of around six US cents in an attempt to boost sales.
The anti-monopoly office ordered MSN to end this alleged practice and, controversially, recommended that the initial plaintiffs– a cartel of private and pro-government newspapers including Vecherny Bishkek, RIF, Bishkek Times and Yuzhny Rynok – launch a legal bid to recoup damages from the opposition publication.
The editors who launched the complaint against MSN told the monopolies department that the republic’s print media was being subjected to “deliberate destruction” as a result of their rival’s “price-dumping” policy.
MSN plans to appeal against the ruling.
Opposition politicians and media rights activists view the ruling with deep concern. “The issue of price setting is a private matter for the publishers of MSN, who have full entrepreneurial freedom of activity [under media laws],” coalition leader Edil Baisalov told IWPR.
Andrei Miyasarov, director of the Centre for Media Support, also criticised the ruling and alleged that it was politically motivated. Many newspapers are distributed for free in the country, but no one accuses them of unfair competition,” he said.
“I think that all these accusations are connected with the opposition tone of the newspaper. It publishes fairly controversial articles which analyse and criticise the socio-economic situation in Kyrgyzstan. Evidently some people do not like this.”
MSN editor-in-chief Alexander Kim told IWPR that the price of his newspaper should not concern anyone other than the consumers who buy it, and argued that his sales tactics were normal for a market economy.
“Anti-monopoly legislation is primarily directed at protecting the rights of consumers who want to buy high quality goods at low cost. The price of MSN suits us, and above all it suits the consumer,” Kim told IWPR.
“Advertisers are attracted by our circulation figures, which we have achieved by offering a low sale price. That is a simple marketing policy that is practiced all over the world.”
But the paper came under further attack for its policies on October 8, when the government newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana accused it of being used by western donors to spread their influence in the former Soviet republic.
The article, titled “American printing house – money solves everything”, alleged that “several newspapers are changing from independence into being controlled by their sponsors”, and pointed the finger at the United States-sponsored International Printing House, which prints MSN among others.
Before this printing house was established in November 2003 with help from Freedom House a US-based media support organisation, and the American embassy, MSN occasionally vanished from the newsstands after the government-run publisher Uchkun refused to print it on various pretexts.
Steven Young, US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, voiced concern over the tone of the Slovo Kyrgyzstana article at a press conference held shortly after its publication.
“There is cause for concern over articles in the Kyrgyz press stating that democracy is an American value that is being forced on the country,” he said. “It is wrong to say that democracy is alien to Kyrgyzstan.”
He declined to comment on the recent trouble experienced by MSN, adding only, “I hope that nothing will be done in Kyrgyzstan that endangers the existence of any representatives of the media.”
MSN is no stranger to such attacks. In its three and a half years in existence, more than 50 court cases have been brought against it, forcing it to pay out large sums of money in legal bills and damages.
Its political editor Rina Prizhivoit told IWPR, “There has been constant persecution of the newspaper for all these years. The authorities have exhausted the possibility of court cases, so they thought up this move to have the anti-monopoly department find us guilty of lowering our prices.”
The authorities “are doing this with a single goal, to close down the newspaper”, she alleged, citing MSN’s influence on public opinion.
The authorities, while backing the ruling made by the anti-monopoly department, deny that it was designed to muzzle MSN or effectively put it out of business.
Dosaly Esenaliev, head of the presidential press service, told IWPR that the decision was not politically motivated and insisted that the anti-monopoly department had found violations which had to be addressed.
“As always, the authorities get blamed for all problems,” he said.
Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.
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