Another blow for banned newspaper

Click here to read more about press freedom conditions in KYRGYZSTAN.

New York, April 4, 2000 — A Bishkek city court recently found the local independent weekly Res Publika liable in yet another defamation suit. The paper is currently banned from publishing until it pays a fine resulting from an earlier lawsuit.

On Friday, March 31, the Pervomai Court in Bishkek ruled that Res Publika must pay 40,000 soms (US$850) for allegedly defaming local politician Sadyrbek Botaliev in a May 18, 1999, article entitled “The Right to Strangle the Rights Protector.” The piece claimed that Botaliev was attempting to undermine the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee by launching a rival organization.

The court also imposed fines of 5,000 soms (US$110) on the newspaper’s editor and on the author of the article. The court ordered Res Publika to pay the fines by April 30.

It is unclear what will happen if Res Publika is unable to pay up by the deadline. On March 27, the state Legal Department ordered the publishing company “Uchkon” to cease printing the paper until it pays an earlier fine of 200,000 sums (US$4,200). On January 16, the Supreme Court had ordered the newspaper to pay that amount for violating the “honor and dignity” of Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the National Radio and Television Corporation (NRTC). The suit alleged that Res Publika had defamed Karypkulov in January, 1999, by publishing an open letter from the company’s employees calling for his dismissal.

The paper did not admit wrongdoing but has agreed to pay the fine. At this time, however, Res Publika is unable to pay the full amount and has so far been denied the right to pay in installments.

Human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan believe the government used the Karypkulov case as a pretext to move against the newspaper. The real reason for the banning of Res Publika, they argue, was its critical coverage of the government’s handling of March 12 parliamentary run-off elections in the Kara-Bura district of the northern Talas region. Res Publika apparently angered authorities by quoting election monitors who reported that several opposition candidates had been illegally denied the right to contest the run-off poll.
The paper has been the target of numerous official attacks while attempting to cover the election and subsequent opposition protests. On March 16, Bishkek police arrested Res Publika reporter Aziza Abdrasulova for covering an opposition demonstration, and detained her for two days. [Click here to read CPJ’s protest letter on this occasion.]
And on March 29, the Bishkek prosecutor’s office reprimanded Res Publika editor Zamira Sydykova for publishing political leaflets to be handed out during protest rallies.

According to the Kyrgyz Center for Human Rights, the local newspaper Delo No has also been threatened with suspension after publishing international criticisms of the election, while the opposition newspaper Asab was recently fined 2 million soms (US$42,000) for alleged tax code violations.

“The recent barrage of attacks on the media exposes the emptiness of the Kyrgyz government’s claims to respect press freedom,” said CPJ Europe program coordinator Emma Gray. “We urge President Akayev to put a stop to this senseless campaign of intimidation against the independent press.”