Media Freedom Worries in Kyrgyzstan

Attack on the major independent TV station creates a sense of unease about the government’s view of media rights.

Media Freedom Worries in Kyrgyzstan

Attack on the major independent TV station creates a sense of unease about the government’s view of media rights.

Demonstrators call for free speech outside the Kyrgyz government building on October 11.

The opposition in Kyrgyzstan is pressing the government to investigate a recent arson attack which put the country’s only independent nationwide television broadcaster out of action. The incident highlights continuing concerns about how committed the administration of President Kurmanbek Bakiev is to freedom of speech

The attack on Piramida TV took place overnight on September 27 to 28, when unidentified assailants beat up two technicians and torched transmission facilities, located remotely from the station itself just outside the capital Bishkek.

No one believed it a coincidence that the broadcast equipment, worth 200,000 US dollars, had only just been installed, after the station had been off the air for more than a month. The attack took place ten hours after broadcasting resumed. Equipment belonging to other TV companies on the same site was left untouched, according to Adylbek Biynazarov, Piramida’s president.

Oleg Vassil, the vice-president of Piramida, told IWPR that the station had been out of operation since August 17, due to the theft of some transmission technology. In the latest incident, he said, “Everything has been burnt and we have nothing left - we have sent the equipment away to be repaired.”

The incident has left journalists and human rights groups worried that the Bakiev government is not living up to the hopes invested in it by the people who brought it to power in March 2005, when a wave of popular revolts drove President Askar Akaev to leave the country. At the time, the new administration was expected to implement swift democratic and economic reforms.

“Piramida, with its independent, honest perspective on domestic current affairs is like a thorn in the government’s flesh,” said Asiya Sasykbaeva, head of the Interbilim group. “The technical problems it suffered even before this latest incident can be seen as an attempt to curtail freedom of speech.”

One of the founders of the Piramida channel, Bekjan Derbishev, suggested things were now worse than when Akaev was in charge. “Under Akaev there were similar attacks on the channel, but they were relatively civilised – these new ones are more thuggish. One begins to remember the Akaev days as a golden age, because the people who are in power now are completely out of control.

“Pyramid was the only independent TV channel left in Kyrgyzstan, and a decision has been taken to destroy it physically. The regime will use any means possible to eliminate the channel so as to extend its own influence over the public.”

According to Edil Baisalov of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, “Piramida’s owners are being pressured so that the television company will cave in and change its editorial policy.”

The head of Bakiev’s press office, Dosaly Esenaliev, denies the regime is involved in any way. “This incident needs to be investigated by the appropriate law-enforcement agencies. I see no political motive. I know they’ve always had technical problems, and this needs to be clarified,” he said.

Police told IWPR that they are currently carrying out an investigation.

The opposition, largely consisting of former Bakiev allies who are disillusioned with his policies, has now joined the fray. In an October 10 statement issued jointly with Piramida staff, the Movement for Reforms – an umbrella group of political parties and non-government groups – launched a broadside on the regime, speaking of a campaign of terror against the TV station.

“Takeover attempts, robberies, arson and threats directed against the independent media have become the new government’s calling card,” said the statement. “This has done irreparable damage to Kyrgyzstan’s image as a democracy.”

The Movement for Reforms held a demonstration outside the Kyrgyz government building on October 11, and later had a meeting with Prime Minister Felix Kulov, who promised to investigate the Piramida attack.

The Ata-Meken party earlier issued its own statement accusing the government of pressuring independent press, television and radio outlets over the last year.

“The regime has not baulked at anything in order to curb free speech on the NTS and KOORT television channels, and at newspapers including Vecherny Bishkek,” said the party.

The NTS channel has been confined to broadcasting its TV programmes to Bishkek and the Chuy valley since the authorities stopped its re-broadcasts in the south of the country in May, arguing that they needed the transmitters for a new state channel in Osh. The other two cases are less about independence than about how the new regime has gained the loyalty of media that used to serve Akaev. KOORT was a pro-Akaev station, but in the last year new managers have been put to ensure it supports the new regime instead. The Vecherny Bishkek newspaper has changed hands so that it too is a pro-government voice.

Piramida has had continual problems over the last year. In December 2005, staff mounted a protest outside parliament, taping over their mouths to symbolise attempts to silence them. The demonstration followed reports of a hostile takeover bid by figures close to the Bakiev administration.

At the TV station, the 120 staff are left with nothing to do. “As staunch supporters of the channel, we come in to work every day and cover important political events, but we don’t go out on air,” said news editor Tilek Bektenov. “You get the feeling that they simply want to force us to resign by depriving us of our salaries, and then they will turn Piramida into an entertainment channel.”

Taalaibek Amanov is the pseudonym of an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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