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

Kyrgyzstan: State Broadcaster Forced to Reform

The prime minister has admitted his government has lost the information war after biased TV reports of a fatal riot sparked widespread anger.
By Kubat Otorbaev

President Askar Akaev has been pressured into making sweeping changes to the state broadcaster after it was accused of biased coverage of a riot in which several people died at the hands of the police.

Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev told the assembly on May 22 that the state media had to be reformed. "People prefer the independent mass media and nobody reads the state newspapers. We have lost control of the information arena," he said.

The president issued a decree on May 27 that established a government council to draw up reforms to the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation, GTRK, over a period of three months.

The fallout from the protest in the southern Aksy region on March 17 and 18 - which was triggered by the arrest of a popular parliamentary deputy - has shaken Akaev's regime to its foundations and most parties agree reform is essential.

In its coverage of the riot, GTRK showed strong support for the authorities and harshly criticised the arrested deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, as well as the thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets in his support.

A government commission studying the aftermath of the tragedy has found that the state television's biased reports "deepened an already serious social and political situation".

Kyrgyz security council head Misir Ashirkulov said that obvious contradictions between the coverage in the government media and its independent counterparts had worsened the situation and made many people "rightfully indignant".

Many people in the Aksy region are said to have lost all faith in the network. One woman told IWPR that that the state media too often restricted itself to "offensive commentaries" and people now preferred to get their information from the independent media "because they cover events objectively". She cited the case of one woman in her village who smashed up her television set in anger at how the facts had been distorted.

Oksana Malevanaya, a television journalist who is also a member of parliament and of the state commission on the media, said GTRK had played a negative role in many events in Aksy.

"When hundreds of people declared a hunger strike, GTRK said no one in the region was going hungry," she said. "When the people knew full well that five of their number had died from police bullet wounds, GTRK broadcast that two people had died from blows to the head from blunt instruments and that officers had not been involved. Such partial coverage obviously annoyed people."

Moldoseit Mambetakunov, director of the State Television and Radio Agency, has vigorously defended his channel and attacked the commission's report. "You cannot make conclusions such as this without watching all the broadcasts dedicated to the Aksy events," he said indignantly.

However, the authorities have been very quick to concede that mistakes were made, although some analysts believe they have done so out of fear that the Aksy people may take to the streets once more if GTRK's guilt was not accepted.

Mambetakunov maintains this is just propaganda put about by human rights activists in the capital. "I sympathise with those who lost loved ones but I have done nothing that requires forgiveness," he said.

But Gennady Kuzmin, editor of the independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa - Novost, disagreed. "The state mass media made offensive attacks even on people who had died from police bullet wounds," he said.

Kuzmin quoted from one state newspaper that said guilt for the deaths lay "with opposition activists who stirred up the crowd, having got them drunk on free vodka and hyped up on drugs".

Parliamentary deputy Bektur Asanov believes the state media had "taken a stance against the people. As a result, they lost the battle".

"GTRK is a monopoly, covering almost 99 per cent of Kyrgyzstan with its broadcasts. But the Aksy events have shown that's not enough. To win people's trust, you need truth and that's what GTRK lacks," he added.

Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist in Kyrgyzstan.