Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has announced that his government would restructure control over a number of state-controlled media outlets to encourage greater public participation. However, due to previous unsuccessful attempts to reprivatize a number of popular mass media sources, the president’s latest initiative raises doubts about whether the restructuring would lead to the promised liberalization of the media or result in stronger government control. Along with Bakiyev’s announcement, the nation-wide radio and television company Piramida has been experiencing difficulties in renewing its license for the year 2006. According to Piramida’s employees, several entrepreneurs allied with the government pushed the company to change its profile from “information” to “entertainment.”
Kyrgyz parliamentarian and renown journalist Kabai Karabekov claims that Bakiyev’s family is involved in the disputes around Piramida, hinting at an authoritarian method of taking control over media holding (Akipress, December 10). In response to the public accusations, the president’s office denied any connections between Bakiyev and Piramida: “The President of the Kyrgyz Republic has neither direct nor indirect links to the situation around Piramida,” declared Bakiyev’s press secretary, Nadyr Momunov (Akipress, December 10).
Together with Karabekov, some 20 Piramida employees staged a public protest in front of the parliament building on December 12. They sealed their mouths with white tape to symbolize suppression of the freedom of speech. Piramida, like other media outlets re-privatized after the Tulip Revolution such as KOORT and Vecherny Bishkek, represents one of the most popular and trusted sources of information in Kyrgyzstan.
Bakiyev’s latest maneuverings with the media can be interpreted as attempts to secure his next presidential term. Likewise, the president’s announced plans to postpone constitutional reform until 2009 due to the current economic hardship in the country came as a surprise to members of parliament, as the reform was scheduled already for spring 2006. By postponing the reform by four years, it will fall in the last year of Bakiyev’s presidency. Although the president agreed to grant the parliament more power, the postponement of constitutional reform undermines the democratic values propagated by the March 24 Tulip Revolution.
Another instance of Bakiyev’s betrayal of the principles of the Tulip Revolution is his harsh reaction to the statement made by the Kyrgyz Ambassador to the United States and Canada, former journalist Zamira Sydykova, in the New York Times (November 15) . In her interview, Sydykova claimed that the U.S. government underpaid the rent for its military base in Kyrgyzstan and ignored the corruption within former president Askar Akayev’s regime . In the following weeks Sydykova received a public rebuke from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president’s administration. While Sydykova’s commentary lacked diplomatic acumen, and she acted more as a journalist rather than as an official representative, her statements nevertheless resembled the opinion voiced by Bakiyev before the Tulip Revolution. With a number of other leaders of the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev had repeatedly alleged that Akayev’s family was using the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan for money laundering. But on December 9 Bakiyev cryptically said that, in the future, Kyrgyzstan “would be able to receive an amount a hundred times higher than now” from the U.S. base (Akipress, December 9).
With the rise of criminality in Kyrgyzstan in recent months, Kyrgyz journalists also must confront the ethical issues connected with reporting criminal activities. At a meeting on December 9, leading Kyrgyz journalists debated creating a special code of ethics to use when reporting crisis situations such as rallies organized in Bishkek’s central square by Rysbek Akmatbayev following the assassination of his older brother, a well-known member of parliament, Tynychbek Akmatbayev. Both brothers were known as local mafia chiefs. The journalists argued that criminals gain a wider audience through mass media coverage and therefore reporters should agree on ways to inform the public without abetting illegal operations (Kabar, December 9).
Nine months after the Tulip Revolution, Bakiyev is distancing himself more and more from the objectives set by his government. By striving to take firmer control over the mass media through indirect ways, the government is failing to fulfill the promises made in the spring. But the crisis around control over the mass media in Kyrgyzstan also shows that despite the increasing suppression of the freedom of speech, there are nevertheless professional journalists willing to address issues such as the lack of transparency and corruption in state structures.
The Kyrgyz government is not able to muzzle all unwanted reporters or media outlets. On the contrary, the government’s attempts to suppress independent voices of popular media damage its image and lowers public trust.