On October 15, KOORT (Kyrgyz public radio and television) was re-privatized as a
result of a legal investigation of the previous management on corruption charges.
This news came shortly after the highly popular newspaper, Vecherny Bishkek, was
returned to its previous owner, Alexander Kim, under the purview of the new
government’s anti-corruption policy. Such re-privatization of the mass media raises
the question of whether the media is becoming more independent or is it being placed
under state control. While KOORT employees called the administrative changes a
“civilized looting” and claimed that re-privatization was illegal, KOORT’s new
directors say it was never an independent media outlet, but was created as a
government organization in the first place (Akipress, October 17).
KOORT remained one of the few media outlets that regularly criticized President
Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s government and this year’s Tulip Revolution. But some of KOORT’s
critical views towards the political changes in the country verged on a smear
campaign against the new government. Such one-sided reporting raised questions about
whether KOORT’s activities were still directed by members of the previous political
regime, particularly Adil Toigonbayev, former president Askar Akayev’s son-in-law.
Similarly, Vecherny Bishkek and Pyramida TV also stayed in the opposition during the
first months after the March 24 revolution. State-controlled KTR (Kyrgyz Television
and Radio) and Kabar News Agency backed the Bakiyev government within hours of
Akayev’s removal on March 24.
While the government insists its decision is legitimate, KOORT employees have
rejected the new management team. In a statement released on October 17, the
employees explained that they are worried that the new administration will persecute
them for political reasons (koort.kg). They also insist that members of the new
management regime lack the appropriate experience to head KOORT. In particular, they
are unhappy with the company’s new general director, Azima Abdimaminova, who was an
active participant in the mass riots against Akayev and organized a youth group,
KelKel. The employees are threatening to quit if the previous general director,
Omurbek Satayev, is not reappointed. At the same time, supporters of KOORT’s new
management say the company’s journalists are still influenced by Akayev.
Before the presidential election in July, then acting president Bakiyev had promised
that all mass media would be privatized and released from state control. This
declaration found wide support, especially after Akayev’s suppression of independent
reporting during the parliamentary elections in February-March of this year. It was
quite evident that the few newspapers that remained unenthusiastic about the March
events still had ties with members of the previous government. Therefore, following
the March Revolution any mass media taking a stance against Bakiyev’s government was
inevitably portrayed as pro-Akayev. With KOORT and Vecherny Bishkek re-privatized,
the overwhelming majority of the Kyrgyz popular mass media became pro-governmental.
Only the newspapers Litsa and Obshchestvenny Reiting and Pyramida TV allow some
criticism of the president.
Gazeta.kg, a popular Internet newsletter that actively propagated anti-Akayev and,
later, anti-Bakiyev views, was sold to a new owner last week. Among Kyrgyz youth
living in Kyrgyzstan and abroad, the website is well known for its liberal political
views. It is not clear whether Gazeta will continue to monitor the government.
The biggest disappointment with the post-revolutionary mass media was that the main
newspapers opposing Akayev’s regime, Moya stolitsa novosti and Res publica, now back
the new government. The chief journalists from both newspapers, Zamira Sydykova and
Irina Prozhivoit, are currently serving as ambassadors to the United States and the
OSCE headquarters in Vienna, respectively. Sydykova explains the altered positions
of her newspaper by the fact that, in the early stages of government formation, it
is more important to support than to criticize.
Yet some Kyrgyz say that these two prominent journalists who once withstood numerous
attacks by Akayev’s government are now effectively immune from unwanted criticism in
the press. For this reason, many Kyrgyz doubt the credibility of former opposition
newspapers because of their sudden switch from anti- to pro-governmental positions.
Kyrgyz journalists are concerned about the re-privatization of KOORT. Some complain
that it is time for them to finally unite in a bloc to secure freedom of speech.
“When previously Res publica and Vecherny Bishkek were in the government’s pocket,
no one from the journalism community showed solidarity. Now we see that anyone can
be influenced by politics,” one freelance correspondent from Bishkek commented.
In effect, the policy shifts that accompanied KOORT’s re-privatization reflect a
general dispute between a more optimistic segment of the public that hopes that the
Tulip Revolution brought positive changes and skeptics who doubt the new government
is capable of conducting clean, transparent politics. The optimists believe that
KOORT has finally been released from pro-Akayev control. The pessimists despise the
fact that a majority of the well-known and influential journalists who previously
challenged the Akayev regime are currently on Bakiyev’s side.
Public reaction to the shifting mass media perspectives in Kyrgyzstan is becoming an
important barometer of public trust in the government.