Sound of Uzbek Fills Void in Kyrgyz South

The amount of Uzbek heard on TV in the south is worrying the guardians of Kyrgyzstan’s national language.

Sound of Uzbek Fills Void in Kyrgyz South

The amount of Uzbek heard on TV in the south is worrying the guardians of Kyrgyzstan’s national language.

The authorities in Kyrgyzstan are becoming locked in a conflict over the use of the Uzbek language in the media in the south of the country, where ethnicity is a highly sensitive political matter.



By law, media outlets have to devote half their airtime or column-space to material in Kyrgyz, as part of a general policy of promoting the language. In the north of the country, the remainder is in Russian, still an important language used not only by the substantial Slavic population here but also other minorities and ethnic Kyrgyz.



In the south, the Uzbek language – of Turkic origin like Kyrgyz – is widely spoken by a community numbering anywhere between 600,000 and 1.2 million.



To serve the needs of this community, several independent TV stations operate in the south, broadcasting part of the time in Uzbek.



These stations are a source of annoyance to the Kyrgyz authorities, who recently accused two of them – Osh TV and Mezon TV - of breaking the law stipulating that 50 per cent of broadcasting should be in Kyrgyz.



The state television broadcaster’s two channels, meanwhile, cannot be seen in the whole of the south, and the same applies to two national-level independent stations, which in any case broadcast only for a few hours each day.



The politics of language has cross-border implications, as the authorities in Bishkek harbour fears of cultural encroachment by Uzbekistan, a country with which its relations have been difficult over the years. Viewers in southern Kyrgyzstan can easily tune in to Uzbek state television – both national channels and local TV stations broadcasting from adjoining parts of the Fergana Valley – all of which serve up Tashkent’s heavily-slanted take on regional politics.



The Kyrgyz government clearly sees it as important to keep an eye on what people are watching in this sensitive part of the country. With little way of countering the influence of Uzbekistan’s state TV, and only limited reach for the national TV channels, the authorities appear to have fixed on the local broadcasters who use Uzbek as their medium.



TV STATIONS REJECT CLAIMS THEY USE TOO MUCH UZBEK



The dispute over the volume of Uzbek-language TV and radio broadcasting took a new turn in late 2007 year, shortly before the December parliamentary election.



In October 2007, Osh TV and Mezon TV found themselves facing prosecution for having “90 per cent of their airtime in the Uzbek language”, thereby breaking the law. The case was brought at the request of Almagul Telekmanova, who heads the southern office of Kyrgyzstan’s National Commission for Developing the State Language, an agency tasked with ensuring Kyrgyz is assigned its proper place.



Osh TV’s director, Khaliljan Khudayberdiev, disputed the claim and responded with vigorous counter-charges of his own.



At a round table in November, held in Osh, he denounced the legal action as “persecution” and insisted his station had not broken the law.



“Over half of our programmes are in Kyrgyz, as required by law,” he said. “Ms Telekmakmanova has accused us without inspecting our programme schedule, and the prosecutor’s office accuses us without any evidence as well.”



Khudayberdiev said there were TV companies in Kyrgyzstan that did break the rules by broadcasting mainly in Russian, “yet we are the ones being accused”.



The two companies have written to President Kurmanbek Bakiev claiming the case against them is politically inspired and demanding equal treatment for all TV broadcasters in the country. Orchestrated pressure on the Uzbek minority at election time was “turning into a tradition”, their letter said.



It added that one reason the two stations focused on ethnic Uzbek issues in particular was that the national broadcasters ignored the minority for much of the time.



“The state TV channels do not cover the life of Uzbeks, or else they do so only occasionally,” it said.



The head of National Commission for Developing the State Language, Tashboo Jumagulov, is unrepentant.



“We have only one requirement - that they fill at least half of their airtime with programmes in Kyrgyz as is required under the Law on the State Language,” he said.



“We are ready to help them with professional translators, but they have ignored our offers. That is why we approached the prosecutor’s office.”



At the round table in Osh, Telekmanova denied that any political motive lay behind the case against the two stations.



“There has never been any persecution of anyone,” she said. “All countries have [language] commissions, and we were set up to protect our state language.W



Telekmanova criticised the two company heads for “turning this issue into a political game by writing a letter to the president”.



CAN KYRGYZ FILL THE VOID?



One question that has arisen as a result of the row is whether enough Kyrgyz programmes exist to fill the airtime of today’s busy TV schedules.



Khudayberdiev TV Osh’s director says Kyrgyz-language films are too expensive. “The National TV and Radio Corporation, the main holder of the fund of TV material in Kyrgyz, does not want to support us [through loans of Kyrgyz films] because it sees us as competitors.



“We can’t show pirated films [dubbed into Kyrgyz] as we’d face large fines, so we have to show Russian, American, Uzbek or Turkish films.”



Other experts agree that it is not enough to simply issue decrees to increase the amount of Kyrgyz-language programmes on television.



“It cannot be solved by one decree or by a decision of the Commission for Developing the State Language,” said Orozaly Karasartov, head of public relations for the Jalalabad regional administration, believes the TV companies are not to blame; the real problem is that the state has never devoted sufficient resources to promoting Kyrgyz.



“If the Kyrgyz language was better developed, the issue of programmes in Uzbek would not be on the agenda,” said Karasartov. “Kyrgyzstan’s TV companies are poorly developed, so the population [in the south] is very much influenced by TV channels coming out of Uzbekistan.”



Even some employees of Kyrgyz state broadcasters admit that the local Uzbek-oriented stations do a better job than they do.



“Their channels make better quality and more interesting programmes,” one employee of Jalalabad regional television admitted privately to IWPR. “We could do the same but we don’t have many professional workers; we [employ] too many relatives of our bosses.”



Almaz Ismanov, of the Resource Centre for Mass Media, fears the problem of the development of the state language is becoming “excessively politicised.”



“All channels survive by re-broadcasting material from Russian and Chinese channels,” he said.



Ismanov suggested that instead of paying for what he called the “inflated staff numbers at the Commission for Developing the State Language”, the government would do better to target its resources on supporting the production of Kyrgyz-language literature and films.



POSITIONS REMAIN FAR APART



Since the complaints about Osh TV and Mezon TV were submitted, the language commission has requested access to their programme archives to analyse their contents. The two companies are now awaiting the commission’s findings on the number of hours devoted to Kyrgyz before considering their next move.



The two sides remain at loggerheads, with neither party ready to back down.



Mezon TV’s director, Javlon Mirzakhojaev, insists it is vital that the Kyrgyz authorities allow local Uzbek-language media to operate freely, not least as a way of counteracting the political influence of Uzbekistan.



“We tell our viewers about the events in their own language,” he says. “If you deprive them of this, they will watch Uzbek [state] television, which propagates the ideology of that country.”



On the other side of the fence, Nurlan Kydyrshaev, chair of the Kyrgyz Language Society and a member of the state language commission, maintains the law must be upheld as it stands.



He agrees with some of the complaints about the lack of Kyrgyz films, but says that if the Uzbek stations are allowed to get away with ignoring the Kyrgyz programme quota, it might serve as a precedent for other minority groups to flout the law.



“What will we do if the representatives of all 80 ethnic groups [in Kyrgyzstan] start making a noise and pressing similar demands?” he asked during the round table in Osh. “The law must be observed.”



In the meantime, Uzbek-language TV remains as popular as ever with viewers in the south.



Kanoatkhon Dehkanova, an Uzbek from Jalalabad, told IWPR that her Kyrgyz friends prefer the independent channels to the programmes on state TV.



“When my colleagues were visiting me at home, I switched the TV over to a Kyrgyz channel, but all six of my Kyrgyz guests asked to go back to Osh TV because they said the state channel always tells lies,” she said.



This appears to be backed up by market research into the preferences of 2,000 viewers in the south, conducted by the company Marketing-Info. This found that Osh TV was the regarded as the best local TV channel by respondents, while the Kyrgyz-language Keremet and the Uzbek-language DDD channels came second equal and Mezon TV was in third place.



Veteran journalist Adiljan Abidov believes Osh TV and Mezon TV will remain important for southern Kyrgyzstan for as long as central government neglects the needs of the Uzbek community.



“The national channel used to have five minutes of news in Uzbek every day but now they don’t,” he said. “We have been asking Bishkek for years to provide news in Uzbek, at least.”



Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad, southern Kyrgyzstan.

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