THE INDEPENDENT PRESS IS HAVING A ROUGH TIME IN KYRGYZSTAN

Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 2

The independent press is having a rough time in Kyrgyzstan

By "Sadji"

The independent press is having a rough time in Kyrgyzstan. This became especially blatant last year, when official persecution of journalists writing for independent newspapers came to a head. In the summer, Zamira Sydykova, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Res Publica, and Aleksandr Alyanchikov, a former journalist for that newspaper, were sentenced by a Bishkek court to eighteen months’ imprisonment. They had been accused of libel and defamation by Dastan Sarygulov, president of the "Kyrgyzaltyn" state enterprise and a deputy of the Assembly of People’s Representatives of the Zhogorku Kenesh (Kyrgyzstan’s parliament). Two other journalists working for the same paper got off with fines. All four had been found guilty of libel in the mass media (Article 128, Section 2, of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic) and defamation in written form (Article 129 of the Criminal Code). In accordance with Article 27 of the Criminal Code, all four were deprived of the right to work as journalists for a period of eighteen months. Finally, they were ordered to pay 2,000 soms (about $112) in "moral damages."

This was not the first time Res Publica had fallen foul of the establishment. In the summer of 1995, the weekly published an editorial, the gist of which was that President Askar Akaev had a villa in Switzerland and a house in Turkey. Most democratic heads of state would not have paid much attention to such a story. At most, they would have issued an official denial. But Akaev sued Zamira Sydykova and her deputy. The trial was a travesty of justice. Its most bizarre feature was that, whereas Akaev sued the newspaper as a private citizen, the court tried the case as an attempt to besmirch the honor and dignity of the President. The trial took place without the participation of the plaintiff. It was comic to watch the plaintiff’s attorney go off to consult the president and his advisers whenever there was a recess. As was to be expected, the judge found in Akaev’s favor. On that occasion, Sydykova and her deputy were found guilty of libel under Article 128 of the Criminal Code of the Kyrgyz Republic. Later, under pressure from national and international human rights organizations, their sentences were commuted. Nonetheless, the court banned both of them from working as journalists for eighteen months.

Res Publica has been singled out by the authorities because it publishes the opinions not only of government officials but also of independent journalists. For over five years, it has directed a stream of criticism at President Akaev and his associates. The harassing of the newspaper and its staff is generally perceived as an attempt by the president and his entourage to free themselves of the publication, regardless of cost. In this, the authorities are supported by the bosses of state enterprises that are dependent on the presidential administration.

The campaign against the free press has not stopped at Res Publica, however. In August 1994, the First Republican Congress of Judges took place in Bishkek. At it, Akaev issued a direct call to the judicial authorities to close down the parliamentary newspaper Svobodnie gory [Free Mountains], which was published in the Russian-language. Its fault was to have published materials critical of Akaev, Prime Minister Tursunbek Chyngyshev, and presidential advisor Leonid Levitin, in connection with the "gold scandal" that erupted at the end of 1993. To cut a long story short, members of the president’s entourage were alleged to have taken 1.5 tons of gold out of the republic by private airplane to Switzerland. Six months later, the gold was discovered in a Swiss bank account. According to the prime minister, it had been put there for "safekeeping," and had not earned a penny in interest for the republic.

Even people unfamiliar with the ways of the world found this hard to credit. A parliamentary investigation came up with a report accusing the president’s entourage of irresponsibility and negligence. The report was leaked to Svobodnie gory, which prepared to publish it in strict secrecy, sending the issue in question to be printed in neighboring Kazakhstan. As a result of the publication of this report and of the parliamentary hearings, Chyngyshev was forced to resign as prime minister.

In July 1994, Svobodnie gory went further. It published a drawing of the Star of David on its front page; in the middle, there was a photograph of President Akaev, and at each point of the star a picture of a key figure in the presidential entourage. This collage was seen by presidential advisor Leonid Levitin, who is Jewish, as a slur against his nation. A great stir was raised in the government press and by the Jewish cultural center Menorah. Strangely enough, the Israeli embassy did not react at all. It is hard to believe that the picture bothered Levitin more than anybody else. What seems more likely is that the president was looking for a pretext to deprive parliament of its newspaper. Although there was no trial, Svobodnie gory was closed by court order. On the day the decision was announced, the state printing press simply refused to print the newspaper. And this was in spite the fact that the editor was supposed to have seven days in which to appeal against the court order before the decision took effect.

Another inconvenient publication for the presidential entourage was the mass-circulation (30,000 copies a week) Kyrgyz-language youth newspaper Asaba [Banner]. The newspaper had undergone an interesting evolution. Until 1992, it bore the name Leninchil zhash [Young Leninist] and was the official publication of Soviet Kirgizia’s Komsomol. When Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, editor-in-chief Melis Eshimkanov managed to hold onto the newspaper’s young journalists, buildings and equipment, and to re-register the paper as an independent publication. The newspaper started printing scandalous details about the private lives of high-ranking persons. It put one in mind of a mischievous child shooting at its elders with a slingshot, and it became very popular among the ethnic Kyrgyz population.

At first, the president and his entourage tried to win the editorial staff over. Knowing that Eshimkanov was ambitious to make a name for himself at national level, the president invited him to all sorts of audiences in the "White House" (as the building housing the presidential administration is called), while the editorial staff were offered the use of a number of apartments. Eshimkanov responded by publishing a laudatory book about Akaev in Kyrgyz and Russian. In the 1995 presidential campaign, the newspaper supported Akaev and depicted the other presidential candidates in an unfavorable light.

After Akaev’s rather dubious victory in the elections, however, the newspaper switched its position. The dramatic change in its allegiance can be explained by the fact that Eshimkanov, who coveted the job of president of the state television and radio company, got no appointment at all. Following the publication of several articles criticizing of the president. the authorities tried to charge the newspaper with violating Article 128 of the Criminal Code. In the meantime, however, the law had been "softened" a little. Originally, Article 128 had read:

"1) Slander: the dissemination of information known to be false, which discredits the honor and dignity of another person or undermines his reputation, is punishable by a fine of from 50 to 100 times the minimum wage.

2) Slander in the form of public speeches, publicly disseminated works or in the mass media, is punishable by a fine of from 100 to 1000 times the minimum wage.

3) Slander that includes the accusation of a serious crime is punishable by arrest for three to six months, or a three-month prison term."

Under pressure from the public and from various international human rights organizations, parliament repealed the third section (allowing for imprisonment). Asaba had plenty of money, so Article 128 no longer held any terrors for it. That forced the authorities to look for a way of striking a blow against the newspaper from which it would not recover. The first shot rang out on November 28 last year, when tax inspectors swooped on the newspaper’s offices to conduct a surprise audit. There seems no doubt that a large-scale action against the newspaper is being prepared.

These lawsuits against the independent press undermine Akaev’s international reputation as Central Asia’s most democratic president, and he is presently trying to restore his shaken image. To this end, Akaev has met twice with representatives of the press: once last summer and again in the fall. At the summer meeting, he promised journalists not to sign into law the bill on the mass media sponsored by Adakham Madumarov, a parliamentary deputy. Although Madumarov is a journalist by profession, his bill would be disastrous for the media. According to it, the mass media must:

* disclose their sources of information to the authorities upon demand.

Journalists may not:

* report on cases under investigation until a court has made its ruling;

* report on the affairs of private enterprises or corporations;

* write about citizens’ private lives.

After being approved by the Zhogorku Kenesh, the bill went to the president for signature at the end of the year. As he had promised, Akaev refused to sign it into law and urged parliament to replace the proposed punishment of up to six months’ imprisonment by a fine of 3,000 times the minimum wages. The president also objected to Article 33 of the law, which prohibited the media from publishing information on cases under investigation until the court had made its ruling. Instead, the president suggested the following wording: "The mass media may not disclose information from inquests, preliminary hearings and judicial proceedings without the written permission of the agencies conducting the inquest, the investigator, the public prosecutor or the court." The new wording does not, however, substantially change the essence of the original draft.

The president made other modifications. In the version proposed by parliament, the law restricted the economic freedom of the press by ruling that advertising might not exceed 20 percent of the newspaper’s total space. Akaev called for this limit to be raised to between 25 and 40 percent, but he did not suggest that the restriction be removed entirely. Parliament is expected to agree to the changes the president has suggested and to pass the bill in a revised form, whereupon Akaev is likely to sign it into law. In other words, president and parliament have cut a deal at the expense of the press.

What is most disturbing is that this is being done under the guise of protecting the professional activity of journalists and under the banner of press freedom and freedom of access to information. On December 19, 1997, parliament adopted two bills, both of which were put forward at the president’s initiative: "On Protecting the Professional Activity of Journalists" and "On Guarantees and Freedom of Access to Information." The first consists of only 16 articles, most of them very general in nature. "Protecting the professional activity of journalists" is defined in Article 13. According to that article, "Officials of government agencies, local government bodies, social organizations, enterprises and institutions are to be held liable if they:

* impose censorship;

* obstruct a journalist’s legal professional activity;

* refuse or revoke accreditation on insufficient grounds;

* put pressure on a journalist or interfere in his or her professional activity;

* illegally confiscate a journalist’s materials or essential technical equipment; or

* provide information to a journalist that is false or subjective.

The article does not specify what the punishment will be for officials who engage in such activity. Will they be imprisoned? For how long? Will they be fined? If so, how much?

The same article states that: "Violation of a journalist’s rights as established by the present Law, insulting his honor and dignity, violence or threat to the life, health or property of a journalist in connection with his professional activity is punishable in accordance with the laws of the Kyrgyz Republic." The relevant laws are not specified, rendering the law merely declarative. Moreover, the law lacks an essential element: provision for the punishment of people who impede the gathering of accurate information. Without such an article, it is pointless to speak of guarantees and freedom of access to information. Many members of Kyrgyzstan’s journalistic community suspect that the aim of the high-flown but essentially weak laws is to repair the damage done by last year’s trials of independent journalists to the president’s democratic image.

* * *

NOTE: THE MASS MEDIA IN KYRGYZSTAN: As in many of the post-Soviet states, the circulation of newspapers and magazines has fallen sharply in Kyrgyzstan since independence. For one thing, centrally-published newspapers and magazines reach remote regions of the republic either with great difficulty or not at all. For another, economic considerations now put newspapers and magazines beyond the reach of many people outside the capital. These days, most people have to count every som, and buying even one newspaper regularly is now considered a luxury.

Therefore, the most popular sources of information are television and radio. Almost every family has, if not a color television, then at least a black and white set. Every family has access to radio. Taking this into account, the presidential administration has kept control over TV and radio. The president of the state TV and radio company is appointed and removed by the President. At present, the president of the state television and radio company is Amanbek Karyp-kulov, formerly secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kirgizia with responsibility for ideology.

Television is the most popular medium. If you watch state-run television, you get the impression that everything is fine in Kyrgyzstan and that the republic has no problems. Entertainment dominates and there is an marked absence of hard news. There are also several "independent" TV companies in Kyrgyzstan, such as "Piramida," "Asman" and Independent Bishkek Television. Their programs also shun political topics or coverage critical of the authorities. In the best case, they provide the bare information on current events. For the most part, the programs of these "mini-companies" differ from those on state television only in the variety of the foreign war movies, horror movies, westerns, and erotica that they show. This accounts for the popularity of Russian TV with Kyrgyzstani viewers, many of whom prefer to watch programs on Russian Public Television (ORT), Russian Television (RTR) and NTV. The Kyrgyz-language broadcasts of Radio Liberty are also popular both for their news reporting and for their analytical quality.

Translated by Mark Eckert

"Sadji" is the pen-name of a Bishkek journalist who contributes regularly to the weekly newspaper Res Publica.

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