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World Press Freedom Review
by Patti McCracken
Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries of the former Soviet bloc, enjoying none of the oil-driven prosperity of regional counterparts such as Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan. However, following the 2005 Tulip Revolution, some progress was made in the field of human rights, and the country became something of a positive leader among its neighbours – particularly with regards to press freedom. Sadly, this trend has seen as about turn in the last two years, with concerted and brash efforts by the government to censor the media. Legal protection has become increasingly unstable and unreliable, in part due to a standoff in parliament between the ruling and opposition parties. The decriminalization of libel failed to pass into law. And, although strides were made towards privatisation of radio and television, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev – or individuals with long-term ties to him – still control the executive boards.
One of the most significant and troubling blows to independent journalism in Kyrgyzstan was dealt in October, when all transmissions from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) into the country were suspended after the Kyrgyz government withdrew RFE/RL’s broadcasting rights. The reason cited for the withdrawal was alleged unpaid debts. However, Melis Eshimkanov, head of the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation, said in December that RFE/RL’s programs were "too negative and too critical" of the government, and that its programs would have to be submitted for prior, governmental approval before broadcasting can resume.
"When faced with an ailing and deeply corrupt economy and countrywide power cuts, the best the Kyrgyzstani government can do is crack down on one of the most reliable, independent sources of information in the country," said Jeff Goldstein, Freedom House senior program manager for Central Asia. "This clumsy attempt at censorship is unfortunate and ultimately self-defeating." Unfortunately, neither the protests from NGOs such as Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists or RSF, nor the calls from the OSCE or the U.S. State Department, have been able to reverse the action.
RFE/RL has been a significant source of news and information for the Kyrgyz people for more than 50 years, transmitting to the country through Radio Azattyk. Azattyk itself also produces two popular television news shows, namely "Inconvenient Questions" and "Azattyk Plus", which mysteriously disappeared from broadcasting schedules in December. In addition to the moves against RFE/RL and Azattyk, the Kyrgyz-language radio service of the BBC was also pulled off the air in December by government order.
This censorship of independent radio broadcasters capped a year which saw a steady clampdown on the press, with individuals at several independent news outlets questioned and threatened because of editorial content. An example of such pressure was the move against Rakhmanzhan Islamov, founder of a local radio station, who was called in to the Tokmak offices of the State National Security Committee for questioning in December. Agents allegedly threatened Islamov, demanding that he halt his investigation into the robbery of a local branch of the national bank.
Russia-based press freedom organisation the Center for Journalists in Extreme Situations reports that journalists are frequently summoned for questioning by the Security Committee, citing, along with the case of Islamov, the examples of Vadim Nochevkin and Turat Akimov. Agents questioned Nochevkin in relation to an article of his appearing in the weekly Delo N, and told him that the article was "poorly written." Akimov, editor-in-chief of the Reporter newspaper, was also called in to answer questions regarding the content in his publication. Furthermore, an article about the poor quality of flour imports from China brought extensive interrogation to the reporters at independent news agency 24.kg, and, in June, authorities raided the offices of De Facto, an independent Bishkek-based newspaper, and confiscated financial records and computer equipment while sealing off the newsroom. The raid was linked to an article printed by the newspaper alleging government corruption. Such action conflicts with Kyrgyz media law, Article 8 of which forbids interference in the work of a journalist.
Another significant restriction placed on the Kyrgyzstan media came from the parliament, when a broadcast bill that will increase the government’s power and influence over the media passed into law in June. The new law gives the president the right to appoint chief executives to KTR, the state-controlled television and radio station. KTR is supposed to be transforming into a public broadcaster. This law effectively strengthens the state’s grip on the broadcast media.
The investigation into the 2007 murder of journalist Alisher Saipov was suspended again this year, after authorities claimed all leads had turned cold. Saipov, a 26-year-old ethnic-Uzbek, was editor of the popular weekly newspaper Siosat – a highly critical periodical that Uzbek businessmen often smuggled into neighbouring Uzbekistan, a country devoid of independent media. Although the Kyrgyz authorities promised to track down the killers, political will soon waned. At the behest of media NGOs across the world, the investigation was twice re-opened, but has as yet yielded no results.
• Return broadcasting rights to independent radio broadcasters.
Population: 5.4 million
Domestic overview: A landlocked Central Asian country bordering on China to the East and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan achieved independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. The country was controlled by President Askar Akayev until the so-called "Tulip Revolution" of 2005, the events of which led to Akayev’s resignation and the election of Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Sadly, politics have remained tense in this impoverished nation, with frequent demonstrations calling for Bakiyev’s resignation for failure to fulfil his promises, and the murder of several parliamentarians in recent years.
Beyond borders: Despite some border disputes with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan maintains close relations with former soviet countries. Kyrgyzstan is also home to Manas Air Base, a U.S. military installation important to Coalition activity in Afghanistan. The country’s principal exports are nonferrous metals, minerals and agricultural goods to Europe and Asia, and Kyrgyzstan is a member of the OSCE, the CIS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the WTO, and the United Nations.
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