In September the Kyrgyz government introduced new amendments to the media law that would potentially limit the work of local mass media outlets. According to Kyrgyz experts, the changes will impose strict rules on broadcasting by local outlets. Despite condemnation by local journalists and international experts, the new version of the law on mass media is likely to be enacted this December.
The amendments include a requirement to devote at least half the airtime to programs in the Kyrgyz language and to feature national developments in 60 percent of the reports. Such measures are widely viewed as a government attempt to censor the mass media as President Kurmanbek Bakiyev further alienates his opponents and his popularity shrinks. Due to the lack of sufficient resources, none of the local TV or radio outlets is able to devote 50 percent of its broadcast time to locally-produced shows, let alone programs in the Kyrgyz language, and often simply retransmit Russian programs. Such requirements, most journalists assert, must be introduced gradually, over the course of several years.
Furthermore, the changes will grant Bakiyev the right to appoint the head of the KTR, the only nation-wide TV and radio corporation, and to increase the government’s leverage in deciding which mass media outlets would be able to receive or renew registration. The amendments were criticized by the OSCE office in Bishkek as damaging to media pluralism and its development. The government, in return, promised to revise the changes again. Should the amendments come into force, however, most TV and radio outlets would be forced to shut down and hundreds of journalists would be laid off, thereby creating an information vacuum in the country.
The mass media in Kyrgyzstan has experienced strong pressure from the government this year. Several independent newspapers have been persecuted by the government and sued by public officials in courts supporting the regime, while several opposition journalists have been forced to leave the country to escape unfair trials. A few online news outlets experienced problems as well. Indeed, in this year’s rating by the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, Kyrgyzstan was in 111th place (110th in 2007) out of a total 173 countries (www.24.kg, October 24).
At least two opposition newspapers, De facto and Alibi, experienced government pressure. The court found both newspapers guilty of besmirching the reputation of a close relative of Bakiyev and fined each of them a million soms ($28,570). Unable to pay such a sum, Alibi’s former editor-in-chief Babyrbek Jeenbekov was subjected to pressure from law-enforcement agencies, while his counterpart from Alibi, Cholpon Orozbekov, had to flee Bishkek in September, shortly after the trial. Publication of both newspapers was terminated (www.bpc.kg, September 17). The punishment served as a warning to other mass media outlets that criticized the government. Several other journalists had to flee the country in 2008 fearing persecution by the government.
Most Kyrgyz journalists complain that they are more exposed to violence from criminal and law-enforcement agencies since the March 2005 change of regimes, with the situation deteriorating each year. Numerous journalists have been beaten up in the course of mass demonstrations that have taken place in the past three years. Last October a renowned journalist, Alisher Saipov, was shot dead in Osh city. Saipov’s death was a signal to other Kyrgyz journalists, especially those criticizing the government, that they faced the constant threat of being attacked or killed. This week Altynbek Joldozhev, a journalist from KTR, was severely beaten by unknown assailants in Osh (www.akipress.kg, October 29). The attack on Joldozhev was apparently organized in advance and took place in broad daylight.
As a reaction to the deteriorating situation with the independent mass media, members of opposition parties and NGO leaders voiced their joint concern in a number of publications and public forums. Several prominent mass media unions (Journalists and the Institute of Media Representatives) and NGOs (Kylym Shamy, Interbilim, and the Institute for Public Policy) in particular have been active in raising public awareness about the suppression of mass media outlets and the government’s repressive policies. This community of experts reacted swiftly to changes in the mass media field, seeking to generate recommendations to the government and parliament to improve the situation of the independent media. Among the issues currently being discussed by the community is the decriminalization of libel and encouragement of internet media and forums. So far, Bakiyev’s regime continues to prevail in this battle with mass media.