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Sued and Stifled: Kyrgyzstan's Media

The independent press is under attack in Central Asia's freest state.
By Ulugbek Babakulov

Independent media in Kyrgyzstan, long regarded as the most liberal state in the region, is under attack as never before with critical voices being silenced through lawsuits, threats and violence.


The latest casualty is the newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti which shut up shop after being ordered to pay more than four million som (about 100,000 US dollars) in "moral damages" to various government officials.


"We lost our case because of the political situation in Kyrgyzstan today. When things change in the future we hope we will be judged differently…but in the meantime we are going," a final press release declared last month.


While the government has not directly shut down publications, like in Soviet times, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti's demise is part of a new trend of financially crippling independent media through lawsuits.


Journalists who write critically about the authorities are increasingly being assaulted or threatened, while the offices of several independent newspapers have been burgled or attacked.


The head of the local Journalists' Association, Kuban Mambetaliev, is convinced that the media's woes are part of a wider government plan to stop dissent, saying, "They control the courts, the law enforcement and penal agencies… they will crush anyone who opposes them-members of parliament, politicians and independent media."


He argues that authorities are trying to stop the spotlight being thrown on social issues in a country where most of the population lives below the poverty line.


"The government is trying to close newspapers that have a strong influence on society's awareness."


Others believe that officials threatened by exposure for illicit dealings are behind the new tough line.


"Corrupt officials do everything they can to protect themselves above all and their large financial interests," well-known Osh journalist Alexei Sukhov told IWPR. "The main thing for them is to create an image and reputation for themselves of being law-abiding citizens."


Altogether today there are a few dozen newspapers, television and radio stations operating in Kyrgyzstan, down from over 400 registered media organisations in the period immediately following independence in 1991.


However, of these, only three newspapers have offered a truly independent viewpoint together with a large enough readership to effectively influence public opinion - the Kyrgyz-language newspaper Asaba and two Russian-language newspapers, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti and Delo No.


Asaba was financially ruined in 2000 by a series of multi-million som suits brought by high-level officials with the paper then passing into the hands of pro-government businessmen.


Moya Stolitsa-Novosti in its year and a half of existence faced 37 lawsuits with damages and fines - in the 28 cases that have so far come to court - totalling over 90,000 dollars, with its journalists individually liable for nearly 2,600 dollars.


This leaves only Delo No., although it too is embroiled in lengthy legal proceedings.


Such cases usually involve officials, and more recently apparently random members of the public, seeking massive damages for stories they claim have offended their honour and dignity.


"Of course everyone understands that the plaintiffs' main aim is not to get money out of the editors," Moya Stolitsa-Novosti editor Alexander Kim told IWPR.


Currently the only ray of hope on the Kyrgyz media scene is the Internet with Moya Stolitsa-Novosti maintaining a website at www.msn.kg, although in a country as poor as Kyrgyzstan few will have access to this information.


The same team did also recently launch a new newspaper called MSN, with Kim vowing that their principles will not change, but few hold up hope of it lasting long.


Last May the Journalists' Association began documenting the growing infringements on its members' rights - a monitoring project that one of the authors of this story has been closely involved in.


One ongoing case highlighted here is that of Ludmila Jolmuhamedova who is currently being sued over an article she wrote for Moya Stolitsa Novosti criticizing plans for celebrating the 2,200th anniversary of the Kyrgyz statehood.


Akin Toktaliev of the Association of Private Enterprises claims that it questioned whether Kyrgyz statehood really was 2,200 years old, and that his honour and dignity had been insulted - for which he is seeking 10,900 dollars from the newspaper and 1,100 dollars from Jolmuhamedova.


Another example last December saw Delo No. taken to court by the president of the Association of Private Enterprises, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, for using the old Soviet-era spelling 'Kirgiz' instead of 'Kyrgyz', and 'Kirgizstan' instead of 'Kyrgyzstan'.


On February 26 the Pervomaisk district court of Bishkek ruled that the spelling found in the constitution was Kyrgyzstan as opposed to Kirgizstan, and issued the newspaper with a warning.


Tezekbaev is now returning to court seeking 26,000 dollars from the paper and a tenth of that amount from its deputy editor, claiming he had been insulted by her "declaring that I do not know Russian" and again writing Kirgizstan instead of Kyrgyzstan.


By far the most successful plantiff has however been Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, who in April brought the latest in a series of suits against Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, unhappy at pensioner Mikhail Korsunsky opinions on social welfare provisions.


Claiming that the article headlined Remedy for Stupor - Court insulted his honour and dignity Tanaev sought damages of more than a quarter of a million dollars from the publishers, around 130,000 dollars from the editorial staff and half that amount from Korsunsky.


This in a country where the average pension is around twelve dollars a month.


The court ruled in favour of the prime minister although the smaller - though still unattainable - sum of 12,000 dollars was demanded from editorial staff, with Korsunsky liable for 150 dollars.


The state media has also faced lawsuits but, analysts note, it never involves such large sums of money and the cases are invariably settled early on.


In February a suit brought by the head of the Jalalabad postal section of the Kyrgyzbasmasoz company, claiming that she had been insulted by an article on a court case against her in regional educational newspaper Dil and seeking two million soms damages, was settled between the parties.


A case by Jalalabad resident Almakan Kaipova against publications brought out by the regional administration, the local internal affairs department and the regional public prosecutor's office was not even investigated.


"The fact remains that there has not been one instance of a ruling against the state media," said Jalalabad journalist Jalil Saparov.


There are also many examples of more direct pressure. An article on alleged links between local law enforcement agencies and a Turkish company was removed from the regional paper Talas Turmushu shortly before publication - following a visit from a top internal affairs official.


In May, Alisher Saipov, a reporter for the Uzbek section of Voice of America radio, was "invited" for questioning at the National Security Service office of the Osh region on whether he had talked with field commanders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.


"I replied that I would be happy to interview these people if given the chance. But I am not acquainted with them. Why the security services suspect me of being involved with these people is beyond me," the journalist told IWPR.


In such cases, reporters are often acused for a "lacking patriotism". One of the writers of this investigation had a number of meetings with members of the National Security Service where IWPR reporters were accused of "selling out to western countries. You're just slandering our country and selling yourselves for the Americans' money".


Zamir Osorov and Toktorbek Janaliev of Moya Stolitsa- Novosti, Jalalabad-based freelancer Moldosadi Ibraimov and Argumenty i Fakty correspondent Almaz Ismanov all told IWPR that they had faced similar accusations.


Even more worryingly, journalists' physical safety also appears to be increasingly under threat.


In January, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti reporter Alexandra Chernykh was assaulted by two assailants just outside her Bishkek home. Her handbag was stolen, and she was hit on the head several times with a rubber truncheon of the sort carried by policemen and interior ministry military personnel.


Colleagues believe that this incident - which left Chernykh with minor skull and brain injuries - may also have been a warning to her mother Rina Prijivoit, the paper's political editor, who is known for her sharply critical writings.


However, Chernykh claims that the local police suggested that she had lost the handbag herself - with no suggestion of how she then sustained her injuries.


Journalist Association researchers point out that such apathy by law enforcement officials is nothing unusual. "There have been assaults on journalists from the independent publications Tribuna and Delo No., and not once has the offender been identified," notes Azamat Kalman.


One reporter, who was assaulted in Osh in March after penning a series of articles critical of government officials, did not even bother to complain.


"In 1997 I was also assaulted and immediately rang the local police station and the regional department of internal affairs. The staff promised to catch the offenders at once, but did not do so," said the journalist, who did not wish to be named.


There have also been instances of independent newspapers' property coming under attack.


In January 2001, unidentified arsonists caused a fire when they threw Molotov cocktails through an office window of Agym newspaper, a publication started by the former editor and some of the staff of Asaba after its take-over.


The offices of the Tribuna, a newspaper known for its articles disclosing corruption in government departments, were burgled with all the computers stolen in May last year.


"The police made no attempt to find traces of those who had burgled the office. The detective in charge of our case openly called it hopeless," said chief editor Yrysbek Omurzakov.


When Moya Stolitsa-Novosti's chief editor found the interior of his garage coated in soot, the left side of his car showing traces of a fire and a large burnt patch near the vehicle's battery, police declared it free of faults - before deciding that Kim or his colleagues had caused the damage.


There have however been some high-level attempts to question the pressure on the media.


The country's human rights ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir uulu wrote to the Supreme Court seeking to have the rulings related to Moya Stolitsa-Novosti reappraised, saying that they appeared "unobjective and unfair" - but these recommendations were simply ignored.


International organisations have also expressed concern. In June the World Association of Newspapers sent a letter to Kyrgyzstan's president expressing "deep concern" at "intimidating actions by the authorities towards the editorial staff of the independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti".


But officials staunchly deny that there is anything wrong. Presidential press secretary Abdil Segizbaev told IWPR that there was no persecution of independent media, saying, "There are simply court matters involving editors.


"And when these editors shift their domestic quarrels to a political context, they have only one goal in mind-to raise the image of their publication."


Commenting on the premier's recent legal action, he added, "Tanaev has gone to court not as prime minister, but as a simple citizen, who has the right to use the courts to defend himself."


He did however admit that such cases reflect badly on the country's image and said that systems to settle such suits without resorting to court need to be developed.


Incidentally Segizbaev, who only recently took up his post, is seen as one of the few public officials trying to establish a dialogue with the independent media and reduce the level of confrontation.


Tanaev himself is rather more blunt in explaining his multiple legal cases. Litsa newspaper reported that he told a press conference in May, "You can bash a journalist in the face, but then not everyone will realise he was writing lies. That's why I am going to court."


Some other politicians however take a rather dimmer view of the situation.


Kabai Karabekov, a former journalist who chairs the parliamentary committee for public associations and information policy says that the media being so hamstrung means that people lack a real picture of what's going on in the country.


Emil Aliev, of the opposition Arnamys party, further argues that shutting down such a valuable outlet for people's grievances could well backfire.


"By persecuting journalists, the authorities are forcing people to the point where they will have to express their opinion in ways that are outside the law."


Journalists are also frightened about what will happen next. Prijivoit feels that it is a bad case of back to the future, "We are sliding towards our totalitarian past, when every newspaper in the country had to believe the Communist Party's ideas."


Down in Osh, Sukhov is just as gloomy, "This will soon lead to the disappearance of the independent media. Free journalism will only exist on the pages of Internet publications."


The head of a local Freedom House project supporting human rights activists agrees, seeing the media crackdown as a symptom of wider, very troubling, changes. "If the persecution of the media goes on as is currently happening, then independent media will simply cease to exist in Kyrgyzstan," warns Stuart Kahn.


"An independent press is inextricably linked to the development of democracy and the democratic process."


Ulugbek Babakulov is a human rights activist in Jalalabad. Asel Sagynbaeva s IWPR project coordinator in Bishkek.


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