In the past few weeks the Kyrgyz government has been blocking transmission of Radio Free Europe (Azattyk) and BBC radio, both of which have a broadcast range covering the entire country. The ban comes at a time of a worsening energy crisis, rampant inflation, mobilization by opposition movements, and general public disaffection with President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s government. Today, all broadcasts throughout the country must go through the government-controlled Kyrgyz TV and Radio Corporation (KTR).
A Kyrgyz NGO, the Coalition for Democracy and a Civil Society, has expressed its concern over the government’s censorship, arguing that this is an attempt to cut the Kyrgyz public off from independent media (www.akipress.kg, December 9). According to the NGO, after censoring local media, the government moved to shut off access to international news outlets, which has a great impact on mostly rural inhabitants.
Another NGO, “Interbilim,” has said that the Kyrgyz government has adopted the practice of eliminating pluralism by censoring the media. Most independent mass media outlets have been subjected to government pressure; and several journalists have already left the country, fearing for their own security (www.24.kg, December 9). Opposition journalists are now forced to publish under pseudonyms. In the meantime, Bakiyev has promoted several employees of pro-regime mass media outlets.
As the leader of the opposition Ata Meken party, Omurbek Tekebayev, told Jamestown, at a time of general suppression of the mass media, Azattyk and BBC were increasingly becoming a political challenge to the president, as they were the only outlets still transmitting independent reports. As the regime becomes more authoritarian and corrupt, Bakiyev needs to control more media in order to stifle public discontent. In the past few months, according to Tekebayev, leaders of all major TV and radio stations have been replaced. “Being an independent reporter in Kyrgyzstan is no longer safe,” the opposition leader concluded.
Several other political opposition leaders think that Bakiyev is trying to close down the independent mass media particularly during the winter months. A number of opposition parties, including Ata Meken, recently announced that they would be organizing mass demonstrations in March 2009 to hold Bakiyev accountable for exacerbating the energy crisis.
The Kyrgyz opposition has already begun orchestrating protests against the regime. Sporadic demonstrations have been taking place in some villages by people demanding electricity. To calm the tension, Bakiyev has been issuing delusional reports about the state of the hydro-energy sector. He has promised that Kyrgyzstan will soon be energy independent thanks to the construction of the Kambarat-2 hydroelectric station.
Bakiyev has also been exerting more pressure on TV channels by demanding that they transmit more programs in the Kyrgyz language and feature reports about domestic developments. This is similar to former President Askar Akayev’s censorship of the mass media during elections.
Due to the lack of public scrutiny and Bakiyev’s reluctance to increase transparency in the energy industry, corruption is thriving in this sector. Some Kyrgyz experts say that embezzlement and money laundering from the construction of the Kambarat-2 station by top officials is the major hindrance to progress.
Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbek Akun revealed his pro-government prejudice once again by defending the president. He claimed that the president must have been busy and therefore unaware that broadcasts by the BBC and Azattyk had ceased. Akun was recently honored by Bakiyev with a medal.
Kyrgyz government censorship has been criticized by the Bishkek office of the OSCE, which has called on Bakiyev to veto the recent restrictive law on the mass media. In its 2009 report, Freedom House described Kyrgyzstan as a country with shrinking independence in the mass media and noted its absence of freedom of speech.
Bakiyev is taking harsh actions to limit freedom of speech. He and his cohorts in the government are preparing for disturbances by the opposition and the public possibly in spring 2009. The opposition might not want to wait until the next presidential elections in 2010 but may try to oust his regime next spring. According to Kyrgyz experts, in addition to limiting access to information, Bakiyev is probably also preparing strategies to suppress mass riots both in Bishkek and in remote areas.
Depending on how cold the coming winter months are, Bakiyev will need to prepare himself for a serious struggle in the spring. Both Kyrgyz NGOs and opposition leaders are already thinking about how they can compensate for the closure of the independent media by resorting to the clandestine dissemination of information.