Kyrgyzstan’s Free Mass Media Intensifies Political Competition

By Erica Marat

Free and diverse mass media have been playing a key role in election campaigns over the past few weeks. Competing political parties have sought to run ads and announcements in major media outlets. By doing so, they have significantly changed their campaigning methods by trying to send the most effective message to stay on top of the competition for the October 10 parliamentary elections.

As a result, televised debates, print interviews and interactive online discussion have flooded national mass media outlets. This freedom of expression contributes to and increases uncertainty about the outcome of the elections, in which 29 parties will compete.

Although most political parties’ programs are similar and are clustered around one or several personalities, the Kyrgyz public can still learn more about competing forces. Interactive websites like allow voters to see a detailed comparison of what each political party promises. Kloop blog, on the other hand, details each political party’s electoral list.

In effect, freedom of speech is at its high in Kyrgyzstan. Never before were mass media outlets so free of government pressure and propaganda during the pre-elections period in Kyrgyzstan, let alone the Central Asian region. In such an environment political forces are indivertibly forced to formulate the most effective message. Political parties are also responsible for being different from competitors in order to be included in the news cycles in national media.

The message of avoiding falsification of election results and reducing corruption in the government has become central to most parties’ campaigns. Promoting economic development is another important issue in which political parties seek to be different. Finally, inter-ethnic reconciliation has been slowly, if not reluctantly, adopted by major political parties.

Competing political forces have avoided using black PR as an instrument against opponents. Thanks to growing popularity of social media, politicians are unable to exercise full control over their image. For this reason, most stay away from attacking others in order to avoid retaliation. Using media to attack opponents might end up being a counter-productive strategy, said one Kyrgyz politician to Jamestown. According to him, by criticizing others one might end up boosting the popularity of those politicians and losing one’s own credibility.

In the meantime, some major newspapers have run a disclaimer that their material is financed by political parties in order to separate campaign ads from original reports, a practice that has been rarely exercised in previous elections.

Furthermore, investigate journalism is becoming more popular as well. Newspapers like Delo Nomer are once again turning into the most reliable source of investigative reporting, helping the public understand corruption practices taking place among top officials.

On the flip side, with such an uncontrolled media environment, ethno-nationalists politicians and activists have also found an outlet. In the wake of the June ethnic violence, some Kyrgyz-language newspapers propagated nationalist views. Indeed, if those propagating ethno-nationalism manage to gain seats in parliament, it will be yet another exercise of democracy in Kyrgyzstan.