Press Freedom Fears in Kyrgyzstan

Journalists face libel action for criticising Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Press Freedom Fears in Kyrgyzstan

Journalists face libel action for criticising Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Journalists say freedom of speech is under threat in Kyrgyzstan after the Bishkek prosecutor warned he would crack down on publications that criticise the country’s president.

Uchkun Karimov told a press conference on January 12 that recent stories in the Litsa and Komsomolskaya Pravda in Kyrgyzstan newspapers undermine the reputation of Kurmanbek Bakiev.

“Recently certain media have published a series of articles that contain incorrect information, frequently of a libellous nature, about Kurmanbek Bakiev, and insult his honour and dignity,” said Karimov.

The prosecutor added that all the accusations were “unfounded, groundless and not backed up by any proof”.

The paper’s editors have been personally warned by the prosecutor’s office to watch what they write in future, but Bermet Bukasheva, the editor-in-chief of Litsa, says she will go on as before. “We are not scared,” she said. “We will continue publishing the opinions of prominent political figures.”

Bukasheva felt the wrath of the prosecutor after publishing interviews with parliamentary deputy Kabai Karabekov and the former governor of the Osh region, Anvar Artykov. Karabekov accused the president of corruption and abuse of power. Artykov said Bakiev had inflamed interethnic hostility.

Both Karabekov and Artykov themselves received official warnings from the prosecutor’s office.

On January 6, unnamed sources in the Kyrgyzstan edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda story said this was a “country of corruption and bribe-taking”.

Karabekov, whose interview in Litsa sparked the row, denied his comments were offensive to Bakiev.

“What insults the honour and dignity of the president is the things that are going on in this country, with deputies, sportsmen and ordinary citizens being killed, other people’s property being seized, and the fact that no one has yet taken any responsibility for this,” he said.

“The prosecutor’s office needs to put the country in order, and not look for enemies among people who express their positions openly.”

Three parliamentary deputies have been killed in recent months along with a top Kyrgyz wrestler who was shot earlier this month in an apparent contract killing.

Deputy Bolot Maripov agrees that prosecutor Karimov has gone too far, and insists journalists are simply writing about what they see around them. “This is a case when the saying 'don’t blame the mirror if your face is ugly' is fair. The media are simply doing their job conscientiously, and reflecting the current situation in the country,” he said.

The leader of the Union of Democratic Forces party, Kubatbek Baibolov, calls the recent events an attack on freedom of speech. He recalled that last autumn, Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev called for a temporary ban on protests and marches and urged the authorities to take measures against the media “for publications which inflame passions and destabilise the situation”.

Baibolov commented, “We are shocked by the attempts by the prosecution service to overrule the constitution,” said Baibolov.

However, Kongantiev told journalists that his subordinate, Bishkek prosecutor Karimov, was well within the law. “I support these actions,” he said.

Under Kyrgyz law, the prosecutor general can go to court on behalf of the president. Libel is a criminal as well as civil code offence in Kyrgyzstan, punishable by a fine or up to three years in prison.

The head of Kyrgyz Supreme Court also supports the Bishkek prosecutor, saying his actions are simply a warning to the press to be objective. “You can’t defame people for no reason, especially not the president,” Osmonov told IWPR.

Edil Baisalov, the president of the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, believes that by stifling the media, it is the prosecutor himself who is undermining Bakiev’s reputation. He called on the president to respond to the current furore.

“Civil society is waiting for an explanation from Bakiev, for his reaction to these actions by his subordinates,” said Baisalov.

Political scientist Nur Omarov sees uncomfortable parallels with the recent past, when President Askar Akaev's administration frequently issued warnings to or prosecuted critical media. “Bakiev’s entourage have gone too far out of a desire to curry favour with him," he said. "The same ways of interacting with the press used in the Akaev period are still being applied, since the entourage is almost the same and the mechanisms have not changed.

"The old-pattern of pressure on the media and the opposition can be expected to start up again in the near future”.

So far, President Bakiev has said nothing about the prosecutorial crackdown on the press, though the chairman of the Presidential Committee for Human Rights, Tursunbek Akunov, insists the president isn’t to blame.

“I can state quite definitely that Bakiev does not have anything to do with this action. The prosecutor’s office is doing the president a disservice,” Akunov told IWPR.

Leila Saralaeva is an IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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