Freedom of the Press
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Kyrgyzstan’s inability to make full use of the democratic opportunity afforded by the fall of President Askar Akayev in 2005 was compounded in 2006 by increasing government attempts to exert control over the country’s media environment. The political situation remained unstable, leading the government to curb media outlets that threatened to undermine its position. While Kyrgyz law protects freedom of speech and prohibits censorship, it is ineffectively and unevenly applied. Libel is considered a criminal offense, although the practice of filing libel suits against obstreperous media outlets has become less common since Akayev’s ouster.
Throughout 2006, media outlets that provided coverage deemed undesirable by the authorities experienced a variety of difficulties, particularly in early November, when the opposition staged a large demonstration in the capital, Bishkek. At that time, the authorities blocked opposition leaders from appearing on state television, privately owned New Television Network (NTS) lost power to its antennae in Bishkek and Osh, and hacker attacks rendered the independent news websites akipress.org and 24.kg inaccessible for several days. In addition, a number of journalists—particularly those covering the demonstration—also fell victim to violent attacks and harassment.
Other efforts to exert control were more overt. In January, Prime Minister Felix Kulov signed a decree dismissing Bakyt Orunbekov as editor in chief of the state-run Kyrgyz-language newspaper Kyrgyz Tuusu. Orunbekov, a critic of Akayev who had ascended to his post after the long-ruling president’s departure, charged that his firing was retaliation for articles critical of Kulov. Also in January, journalists at the state-run Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (KTR) staged a protest over the appointment of an ally of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev as deputy director. A concerted campaign targeted privately owned Pyramid TV, which had been the object of a forcible takeover attempt in late 2005 amid allegations that current and former officials were behind the bid. In September, four men broke into Pyramid’s offices and started a fire, causing US$200,000 in damage, according to Pyramid producer Turat Bektenov. Authorities did not actively pursue an investigation of the attack. Pyramid, which provided critical coverage of Bakiyev, encountered harassment in a number of other forms, including an assault on Bektenov in November. The station managed to resume VHF broadcasts by the end of the year, however.
Overall, the authorities, led by the presidential administration, seemed intent in 2006 on retaining a significant level of control over the broadcast media, which remain the primary source of news for most Kyrgyz citizens. After the fall of President Akayev, the opposition forces that came to power advanced plans to transform KTR into a public broadcaster. However, Bakiyev vetoed a bill passed by Parliament in September that would have implemented that proposal. The government ended privately-run NTS’s transmissions in a number of regions in May, citing the need to use the frequency for a new state channel, E1 TV, which is frequently subject to government controls. Kyrgyzstan has 40 to 50 regularly printed newspapers and magazines, most of them private but not all independent. Uchkun, the state-owned printing house, controls the primary means of publication in the country, but a U.S.-sponsored printing house (operated by Freedom House) established in 2004 provides publishers with an alternative. Foreign media are allowed to operate freely within the country, but foreign ownership of domestic media outlets is prohibited. The internet is available in just a few places in the country, and only 5 percent of the population accesses the internet on a regular basis. Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan has a lively and growing selection of internet news sites, blogs, and forums for political discussion.