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Privatising the State Press in Kyrgyzstan

The privatisation of two leading government newspapers could create a freer press – if the authorities cede control of the shares, that is.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
As part of a general relaxation of state controls over the media sector, the Kyrgyz authorities have announced plans to privatise government-owned newspapers. But editorial staff are doubtful that they will win complete independence.

A decree by President Kurmanbek Bakiev on December 8 announced that two of the three main national papers, Slovo Kyrgyzstana and Kyrgyz Tuusu, are to be sold off. All eight regional newspapers owned by the government will also be privatised.

Before Askar Akaev was ousted in March this year, his government used the state-owned media as a mouthpiece for suppressing political opposition.

The government's grip on the media became less overt with the arrival of the Bakiev administration, and privatisation is supposed to enhance the liberalisation.

“The president made a promise after the March revolution, and he has kept his word,” presidential spokesman Dosaly Esenaliev told IWPR. “With this decree, a step has been made towards privatising government media, and they now have a chance to turn into an independent press.”

But despite the announcement, journalists on the two papers slated for privatisation doubt that the state will cut the reins altogether. They believe the government will retain a controlling stake, allowing it to have a say in editorial decisions.

Alexander Malevany, editor-in-chief of Slovo Kyrgyzstana, told IWPR, “It will be easier for us to live if we are given complete freedom, but we have fears [that it won’t happen]. We are going to try to acquiring controlling stake. Many experts are making downbeat predictions, but we will try to win out.”

Kyrgyz Tuusu editor Bakyt Orunbekov hopes the government will give the bulk of the shares to the editorial staff, “If they don’t give us the controlling stake, there will be no point in holding an auction at all. The staff wants to acquire this share package, and we won’t let any outsiders in.”

The state-owned papers have already been given a degree of freedom since the March revolution, and their coverage has become more balanced.

Abduvahab Moniev, editor-in-chief of Osh Janyrygy, a regional paper in southern Kyrgyzstan, says he has been allowed to change editorial policy. “After March, I began printing a wider range of articles. The newspaper is now widely read and circulation is growing month by month. That’s because there is no pressure or censorship,” he said.

But Moniev admits that as his newspaper is funded out of the provincial government budget, it remains dependent on the will of the governor.

Malevany agrees that the authorities continue to exert some influence, saying, “In Akaev’s time, we were placed under heavy pressure, but this has now turned into pleading and persuading. But refusal is still not an option.”

Nurlanbek Shakiev, editor-in-chief of Erkin Too, the only government newspaper not facing privatisation, takes a different view, because his paper receives so little of the money the state should be giving it.

“I can’t say that we are pressured or that our affairs are interfered in. The state gives us a tiny sum and we cover 97 per cent of the costs ourselves, so there’s no pressure here,” he said.

After the privatisations go through, Shakiev said, “We will be the only government paper, and we’re happy with that.”

Everything now depends how the privatisation deal is structured. A source at the Committee for State Property, which handles privatisations, told IWPR that the tendering process could begin early next year.

“We have been made aware that staff at these newspapers intend to get their own way, and this may even result in prolonged demonstrations outside the White House,” said the source, who did not want to be identified.

He added that the authorities were exploring other options, such as creating front companies through which the state could retain its shares in the newspaper.

Ilim Karypbekov, a legal expert with the media support organisation Internews in Bishkek, cautions that the terms of the privatisation have yet to be nailed down. He believes that in any case, “the state will undoubtedly be involved in managing this media, anyway”.

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent of radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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