Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
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Kyrgyzstan’s media environment continued to deteriorate in 2008 following a brief period of optimism in 2005, when protesters ousted the country’s long-ruling authoritarian president, Askar Akayev. Flawed December 2007 parliamentary elections and escalating government pressure on the media cemented the increasingly authoritarian rule of current president Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his Ak-Zhol party. These developments strengthened the progovernment media and increased the level of self-censorship at independent outlets, which remained active but were less frequently heard.
Despite the country’s relatively progressive media laws, libel remains a criminal offense and carries up to three years in prison; authorities have ignored repeated calls to decriminalize it. In 2008, the government and its allies opened at least seven criminal cases and over 30 defamation lawsuits in their efforts to suppress embarrassing news. In June, a court in Bishkek fined two independent weekly newspapers, De Facto and Alibi, 1 million Kyrgyz som (US$28,500) each for reporting that the president’s nephew may have played a role in a fatal car accident. Authorities aggressively harassed both newspapers in the following months. Prosecutors opened criminal investigations against their editors, both newspapers were forced to close down, and De Facto editor in chief Cholpon Orozbekova fled the country, fearing for her safety. Secretive and politicized media regulators failed to issue broadcasting licenses to independent media companies that would compete with the state-run Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (KTR). The government has not approved any requests for new media outlets since 2006.
The government took several steps in 2008 to restrict the country’s influential broadcast media. In June, Bakiyev signed restrictive broadcast legislation that effectively derailed attempts to reform the KTR. The new law allowed the president to appoint the executives of KTR, expanded the ability of media regulators to shutter outlets by revoking broadcasting licenses without judicial oversight, and established new programming requirements that are likely to force some independent broadcasters out of business. In October, the authorities suspended local broadcasts of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on KTR, with the state broadcaster’s director Melis Eshimkanov complaining in December that its news reporting was “too negative and too critical.” Officials regularly refused to provide basic public information to journalists and in some cases failed to issue press accreditation in their efforts to obstruct independent reporting.
Independent journalists reporting on politically sensitive issues like government corruption and the improper privatization of state companies continued to endure aggressive harassment from tax inspectors, security officers, and the state antimonopoly committee. In March, officers from the National Security Committee (KNB) repeatedly questioned and threatened journalist Sultan Kanazarov after a website he reported for, the Russia-based Fergana.ru, published an article about Bakiyev traveling to Germany to receive medical care. In December, the financial police summoned journalists from the independent news agency 24.kg for questioning after they reported on contaminated flour that had been imported from China.
In other cases, unidentified individuals harassed journalists with impunity. Two unidentified men broke into the home of opposition Green Party activist and journalist Khabira Mazhiyeva and threatened her after she exposed secret efforts by the government to authorize mining within a national park. Mazhiyeva fled the country out of fear for her security. The government’s growing hostility toward the media was also reflected in its failure to properly investigate the October 2007 murder of independent journalist Alisher Saipov, despite credible allegations that security officers from neighboring Uzbekistan were involved. Police officials twice closed and reopened the inquiry during 2008, with Deputy Interior Minister Dmitry Fedorov announcing in December that Saipov’s murder was unrelated to his journalistic work. In these and other incidents, the authorities seemed less than eager to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Taken together, the growing harassment of journalists, the uninvestigated murder of Saipov, and the authorities’ willingness to impose extrajudicial censorship at politically sensitive moments indicated a clear continuation of the retreat from reformist principles that began soon after the fall of Akayev.Nearly 50 newspapers and magazines print regularly with varying degrees of freedom. 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. Approximately 50 state-owned and private television and radio stations operated in the country, with two television stations, both state-owned, broadcasting nationwide. Foreign media are allowed to operate freely, but foreign ownership of domestic media outlets is prohibited. A number of Russia-based media outlets are also present, and as they are registered with the Ministry of Justice, the government considers them domestic media. Government newspapers, television, and radio continued to receive state subsidies, and the government remained the primary source of scarce advertising revenue, which allowed officials to influence media content. Internet news sites, blogs, and forums provided a lively alternative for those with access (approximately 14 percent of the population in 2008), though there were reports that news websites like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and blogging websites like LiveJournal were blocked by the government.