Among the increasingly authoritarian leaders of Central Asia, Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev is perceived as relatively democratic. At least publicly, Akayev has attempted to accommodate Western demands for improvements in the legal climate for media. Yet Kyrgyzstan’s small but feisty independent press is increasingly muzzled, and journalists say the Akayev administration is to blame.
In 1999, costly civil-libel suits and bureaucratic pressure fell on two weeklies, Asaba and Res Publika, and on the daily Vecherny Bishkek. Local journalists argue that the suits were part of a government strategy to weaken the opposition press before parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2000.
In one such case, filed on January 29, the president of the national radio and television network sued the opposition weekly Res Publika for allegedly insulting his “honor and dignity.” The paper had published a petition, signed by former employees, that demanded his resignation. The president then fired the employees for criticizing the government. In March, a Bishkek city court judge ordered the weekly to pay a ruinous fine of 200,000 soms (about US$6,670) for insulting the president.
Because of heavy legal expenses, the paper published only intermittently after March. On January 14, 2000, when Res Publika lost its Supreme Court appeal, it appeared certain that the paper would go bankrupt. And in the same month that the Supreme Court ruled against Res Publika, the government barred the paper’s vocal editor, Zamira Sydykova, from registering as a parliamentary candidate in the February elections.
The suit against Res Publika reflected a new trend in legal tactics against the press. While there have been few criminal-libel prosecutions in the past two years, public officials (including close associates of President Akayev) have increasingly sought huge civil damages from struggling media. When fines are awarded, they are often so high that the outlet is forced to close.
In October, President Akayev blocked the passage of a proposed law on the “defense of honor, integrity, and professional reputation.” The bill was introduced by legislators who wished to impose even more draconian means of shielding government officials from criticism.
The president’s goodwill did not apply to the opposition daily Vecherny Bishkek, which faced trumped-up charges of tax evasion and financial impropriety. The paper was still publishing at year’s end, but its editor, Alexander Kim, had been forced to resign. Kim was told to step down or face imprisonment and the closure of his paper. Authorities then dropped the case against Vecherny Bishkek. The paper has now effectively become a pro-government publication.
The government has also limited the role of independent television stations by controlling the distribution of broadcast frequencies. In April, the independent station Osh-TV received a broadcasting license good for only one year, despite the fact that other stations, less critical of government policies, received approval for periods of up to seven years. Osh-TV was one of the few stations that provided independent coverage of a September conflict between the Kyrgyz military and Islamic militants from Uzbekistan in the Batken region bordering Uzbekistan. Local journalists said the government released few details about the conflict and blocked them from traveling to the remote area.
On January 27, President Akayev issued a decree to dissolve the Committee on Moral Norms. Founded in 1998, the committee was supposed to fight pornography. In fact, it spent most of its time harassing opposition newspapers such as Paishamba and Limon. Among local groups that lobbied for an end to the committee was the Association of Journalists, launched in December, 1998, as an alternative to the state-controlled Journalists’ Union of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Res Publika LEGAL ACTION
Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the National Radio and Television Corporation (NRTC), filed a lawsuit against the opposition weekly Res Publika for allegedly insulting his “honor and dignity.” The complaint was based on an open letter from 20 NRTC employees, calling for Karypkulov’s dismissal, that Res Publika published in its January 12 edition.
Twenty employees of the National Radio and Television Corporation signed the letter, which was entitled “Honest people must be at the head of the State Television.” The appeal was addressed to President Askar Akayev, Prime Minister Jumabek Ibraimov, parliamentary speakers Usup Mukambaev and Abdygany Erkebaev, and Prosecutor General Asanbek Sharshenaliev.
On March 30, a Bishkek court ruled in favor of Karypkulov and ordered the newspaper to pay a fine of 200,000 soms (about US$4,200). Res Publika appealed to the Bishkek city court, which upheld the verdict on May 1.
The paper then filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear the case on July 8. The court postponed the hearing several times, and it was still pending as this volume went to press. Res Publika managed to print only intermittently last year.
Meanwhile the paper’s editor, Zamira Sydykova, declared her intention to run in the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections, scheduled for February 20, 2000. Sydykova and her supporters feared the Supreme Court would uphold the fine, which would bankrupt the paper and deprive her of a platform for airing her views during the election campaign.
Alexander Kim, Vecherny Bishkek HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Officials attempted to arrest Kim, editor of the daily Vecherny Bishkek, on charges of tax evasion. The charges apparently resulted from the news-paper’s detailed coverage of the political opposition, including a series of articles about possible contenders for the 1999 presidential election.
The police ordered Kim to turn over some of the newspaper’s financial records. Kim argued that Vecherny Bishkek had successfully passed an audit in December 1998 and that, under Article 13 of the tax code, no additional review could be performed for another year.
On August 25, the tax police pressed criminal charges against Kim for failing to turn over the documents. Tax authorities, local police, and Ministry of Internal Affairs officials made numerous attempts to arrest Kim throughout the day and surrounded the newspaper’s office building late into the night.
With the help of colleagues, Kim hid for several days. He was then hospitalized in Bishkek, where he received treatment for a heart condition presumed to have been brought on by the incident. Meanwhile, tax authorities began a separate investigation of Rubikon, the advertising arm of Vecherny Bishkek, which also passed an audit last year.
A month later, Kim resigned his editorship under duress but remained on the paper’s board of directors. The audit, which lasted a month and cost the paper a substantial sum in legal fees, found no irregularities. Subsequently, the Ministry of State Property determined that Vecherny Bishkek had not paid a fair price for its current office space. The ministry failed to take punitive action, however.
CPJ protested the clampdown on Vecherny Bishkek in an August 26 letter to President Askar Akayev. The paper was coming out regularly at year’s end. But many journalists, including Kim, said that Vecherny Bishkek increasingly resorted to self-censorship.