Freedom of the Press
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Kyrgyzstan’s media environment continued to deteriorate in 2007 in the wake of a failure in 2006 to cement the brief gains seen after the fall of long-ruling president Askar Akayev the previous year. Attacks on journalists and crude government attempts to impose censorship were increasingly evident. Legal protections remained uneven, and with the country’s political elite polarized in an ongoing standoff between President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and the opposition, reforms stalled. The parliament debated legislation to decriminalize libel but failed to pass it into law. And while the long-awaited transformation of state television into public television took place, its supervisory board was plagued by conflicts amid signs that the president retained control over the state broadcaster.
The October murder of journalist Alisher Saipov, an ethnic Uzbek who ran the Uzbek-language newspaper Siyosat in southern Kyrgyzstan, was a disturbing development that brought to light a number of flaws in the country’s media environment. Despite credible allegations of a possible Uzbek role in the killing of Saipov, who was known for his opposition to Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, Kyrgyz authorities pursued a lackluster investigation focused on Saipov’s purported ties to Islamic extremists. Moreover, law enforcement authorities in Osh reportedly pressured local reporters not to cover the case and reprimanded Osh television stations for broadcasting a documentary about the slain journalist.
Opposition demonstrations in April featured assaults on at least five journalists that government officials dismissed as fabrications made by journalists hungry for more publicity. Separately, in March, Kairat Birimkulov, a reporter for state television, was assaulted as he was covering corruption allegations at the state-run railway company. Facing libel charges and continued death threats, Birimkulov left the country in October and obtained political asylum in Switzerland. Also in March, Talantbek Sopuyev, a cameraman for a television station owned by the brother of prominent opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, was beaten; Sopuyev was attacked again in September. Daniyar Isanov, an anchor at the independent television station NTS, was abducted and beaten by unknown assailants in March. Anna Mostfa, a reporter for the newspaper Obshchestvenny Reiting, was attacked in November. In these and other incidents, the authorities seemed less than eager to pursue investigations to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
In another distressing development, security forces in the capital city of Bishkek raided an independent publishing house (affiliated with Freedom House) during opposition demonstrations in April and confiscated the print runs of the newspapers Agym, Kyrgyz Rukhu, Apta, and Aykyn. The confiscations took place without a court order or warrant, although Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev later apologized for the raid. And in October, police confiscated the 2,500-copy print run of the independent newspaper Alkak, which had decided to publish criticism of a presidential proposal. Separately, the premises of the opposition newspaper Kyrgyz Rukhu were broken into and set on fire after the paper published several articles that criticized a presidential aide. Taken together, the increasing number of assaults on journalists, the murder of Alisher Saipov, and the authorities’ willingness to impose extrajudicial censorship at politically sensitive moments betokened a clear continuation of the retreat from reformist principles that was already evident in 2006. The end of the Akayev regime in 2005 had raised hopes that Kyrgyzstan might become an exception to regional trends, but the events of 2007 saw those hopes frozen. In its report on December preterm parliamentary elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe termed the elections a “missed opportunity” and noted that the media “did not provide adequate information for voters to make an informed choice.” Nevertheless, independent viewpoints were heard and foreign media operated freely.
Nearly 50 newspapers and magazines printed regularly, 8 of which were state owned, with varying degrees of independence. The independent printing press run by local nongovernmental organization Media Support Center surpassed the state-run printing house, Uchkun, as the leading newspaper publisher in the nation. Foreign media are allowed to operate freely, but foreign ownership of domestic media outlets is prohibited. Internet news sites, blogs, and forums provided a lively alternative for the small numbers of citizens with access (approximately 5 percent in 2007), with no reports of the content being restricted or censored by the government.