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

Kyrgyzstan: Regional Press Muzzled

Political interference prevents publication of objective journalism in the country's provinces.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

Regional journalists working for state-run media are finding it almost impossible to get objective stories published because of political intimidation.

Zhalil Saparov, deputy editor-in-chief of the Akyikat regional paper, claims his publication can only print stories approved by local bureaucrats. "The regional state administration founded the paper and our wages are paid by the government," he explained. "If you write a critical piece you will have various problems at work - or even be fired."

Saparov has received threats after writing an article that exposed illegal activities among the city's political leaders and was condemned by his editor and by the chief of the regional governor's press service.

"The provincial mentality, traditions and corruption in state bodies prevents provincial journalists from working freely," claimed Abdumalik Sharipov, a journalist with the Zhalol-Obots newspaper in the Tongi region, who also admitted that regional reporters were limited by pressure from government officials and law enforcement agencies.

It is claimed that officers from the national security service, NSB, visited another journalist - who did not want to give his name - after he wrote an article criticising the affairs of a foreign company operating in his region.

"The day after the piece came out, the NSB people came in and demanded that I not write anything else about that company," the reporter told IWPR, adding that the officers justified their demand on the grounds that the foreign company was providing jobs for Krygyz citizens.

Pressure does not only come form the Krygyz authorities. Reporters working near the frontier with Uzbekistan have complained of interference from that country's authorities too.

Akyikat correspondent Zhakiev Zhumamitsin has reported on disturbances at Uzbek-Kyrgyz frontier posts and has drawn attention to the excesses of the neighbouring country's border guards. He was detained by Uzbek military personnel on May 5 as he tried to return to Kyrgyzstan and had to pay 250 som - around five US dollars - to secure his release.

"They accused me of stirring up anti-Uzbek feelings amongst the population," said Zhumamitsin. "I managed to convince the border guards that I had nothing to do with those articles."

This IWPR reporter was detained by the guards while returning from Osh via Uzbekistan. A conscripted soldier revealed that all border posts held a list of wanted journalists and alleged that I had published several articles that "undermined the constitutional order of Uzbekistan". After four hours of negotiation, I paid 300 som, although the border guards had initially demanded ten times as much.

Regional reporters are also hampered by a lack of equipment and poor technical resources. Many do not have equipment like tape recorders or computers and access to the Internet is very poor. "Even Akyikat - which is one of the leaders in the region - has no fax machine or cameras and there is absolutely no transport to speak of," said Saparov.

Professional standards are relatively low, a fact Saparov blames on selection methods and a lack of training. The newspaper's editor-in-chief is a former junior school headmaster and Saparov is the only trained journalist on the staff.

The wages are low - around 500-800 som - and there are few prospects for the journalists to better themselves. As a result, most choose to leave the local publications and try their luck in the city.

Reporters working in the capital enjoy social and legal protections that their provincial colleagues can only dream of. And the major cities of Bishkek and Osh are home to most of the organisations dedicated to protecting the rights of journalists.

There is little hope for improvement. Most regional newspapers are state-owned and, while more independent publications would improve the situation, there are many obstacles in the way of would-be proprietors.

Bakyt Orunbekov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Ferghana, says the main problem is one of finance. "There are almost no advertisers here. All the existing companies and firms are in the capital and they place their adverts there," he explained. "Sometimes we have to print commercial articles to order."

The quality of printing houses in the regions is also poor. There is only one offset printer in the south of the republic despite the fact that half the population lives there. Using other businesses in Bishkek is economically unviable due to transport and other costs.

As a result, Kyrgyzstan's large provincial population is being deprived of independent and objective news of events and issues in their area. At a time when the country's government has just resigned in the wake of large-scale protests in the south, this lack of reliable information will only serve to further undermine stability.

Ulugbek Babakulov is an independent journalist in Kyrgyzstan.