WHILE THE PRESS IN KYRGYZSTAN HAS ENJOYED A REPUTATION for greater freedom than in any other Central Asian republic, that freedom has in fact been eroding since the mid-1990s. In 2000, pressure on the independent media greatly intensified in advance of parliamentary and presidential elections.
Many observers believe President Askar Akayev is resorting to more ruthless tactics as the economic miracle he promised fails to materialize. A CPJ research mission just before the October 29 presidential poll documented widespread intimidation of the media via official threats, punitive tax audits, and costly lawsuits.
According to human rights groups, the government arrested or otherwise neutralized virtually all opposition candidates before the parliamentary elections in February and March. Later in the year, the presidential election saw a similar trend, most notoriously in the case of opposition leader Felix Kulov, the republic’s former vice-president. Kulov was imprisoned for four months on charges of abusing the powers of his office. He was released in August, only to be disqualified as a presidential candidate for refusing to submit to an electoral “language panel.” Akayev partisans were said to dominate the language panel, which determined whether candidates were proficient in Kyrgyz.
Opposition candidates complained of the unequal airtime they were given on local television during the election campaigns. One independent TV company, Pyramida, pulled its political debate program off the air in direct response to government pressure.
Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a 55-state bloc, reported that both the presidential poll and the March 12 parliamentary run-off “failed to meet international standards for equal, free, fair, and accountable elections.”
Libel remains a criminal offence in Kyrgyzstan, although most cases are tried in civil courts. In June, however, a free-lance reporter with the regional weekly Akyikat was sentenced to two years in prison for insulting a judge. Following an international outcry, including protests from CPJ, the journalist was freed after spending five weeks in jail.
In July, a high-ranking official sued the opposition Kyrgyz-language newspaper Asaba, alleging that the paper had libeled him repeatedly over many years. On December 18, a local court imposed a fine of 5 million soms (US$100,000) on Asaba, which appealed the ruling. The opposition weekly Res Publica also faced concerted legal harassment including several libel suits, some of which resulted in heavy fines. In March, a female reporter with the newspaper was arrested, strip-searched, and subjected to an all-night trial at which she was denied legal counsel.
The weekly Delo N fell afoul of the authorities after publishing details from Feliks Kulov’s closed trial, allegedly including classified information about an agent of the National Security Committee. In a blatant violation of due process, the paper’s editor, the deputy editor, and the author of the article were forced to testify as witnesses against themselves, while their homes and offices were searched. At year’s end, both the paper and the journalists still faced criminal charges of revealing state secrets. A separate libel suit was dismissed in December, however.
Kyrgyzstan’s main printing house is state-owned, charges high rates, and arbitrarily calls in the debts of independent publications, which are already strapped because of poor economic conditions. Vecherny Bishkek, a formerly independent daily that was subjected to expensive tax audits in 1999, was bought in 2000 by associates of the president, and is now a pro-government newspaper.
Pressure of a different kind was applied to the television station in Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second largest city, located near the border with Uzbekistan. Government regulators demanded that Osh-TV, a popular independent station that presents Uzbek-language programming, switch its transmitters to a frequency that many Kyrgyz TV sets cannot receive. The station said the switch would entail huge costs, and suggested the demand was politically motivated. A Court of Arbitration in Bishkek denied the station’s appeal.
Aziza Abdrasulova, Res Publica
Abdrasulova, a well-known reporter for the independent weekly Res Publica, was arrested after covering a protest rally. Police charged her with “participating in an unsanctioned meeting.”
Earlier in the day, Abdrasulova had attended a peaceful demonstration outside the Pervomai Court building in Bishkek. The demonstrators were protesting alleged fraud in the March 12 parliamentary runoff elections in the Kara-Bura district of the northern Talas region of Kyrgyzstan.
Abdrasulova was arrested at her home and detained, as were the organizers of the protest. She was forced to undergo a strip search by male police officers, was detained without food or heat, and was denied the right to legal counsel.
Following an all-night trial during which she was denied the right to defend herself, Abdrasulova was released at 5 a.m. on March 18, after paying a fine of 1000 soms (US$20).
In a March 23 letter to President Askar Akayev, CPJ protested this and several other instances of harassment against Abdrasulova and Res Publica.
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
The Pervomai Court in Bishkek ordered the opposition weekly Res Publica to pay a fine of 40,000 soms (US$850) for allegedly defaming a local politician.
The court also imposed fines of 5000 soms (US$110) on the newspaper’s editor and on the author of a May 18, 1999, Res Publica article claiming that the politician, Sadyrbek Botaliev, was attempting to undermine the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee by launching a rival organization.
On March 27, the state Legal Department ordered the newspaper to cease printing until it had paid an earlier fine of 200,000 soms (US$4200) for violating the “honor and dignity” of Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the National Radio and Television Corporation (NRTC). Karypkulov alleged that Res Publica had defamed him by publishing an open letter from the company’s employees calling for his dismissal.
The paper did not admit any wrongdoing but agreed to pay the fine. Being unable to pay the full amount, however, Res Publica had unsuccessfully sought to pay in installments.
Human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan believed the government used the Karypkulov case as a pretext to move against the newspaper after Res Publica criticized alleged irregularities in a March 12 parliamentary runoff election. The stories quoted election monitors who said several opposition candidates had been illegally barred from contesting the poll.
According to the Kyrgyz Center for Human Rights, the local newspaper Delo N was also threatened with suspension after reporting international criticisms of the election.
Moldosali Ibraimov, free-lancer
IMPRISONED, LEGAL ACTION
A Jalal-Abad city court sentenced Ibraimov, a free-lance contributor to the state-owned weekly Akyikat, to two years in prison for criminal defamation. He was also fined 100,000 soms (US$1230), and a similar fine was imposed on the newspaper, according to local news reports and CPJ sources in Bishkek.
Ibraimov was prosecuted for reporting allegations that a local judge had accepted a bribe to rule in one party’s favor in a legal dispute between two rival parliamentary candidates. The article, entitled “Did the Judge Commit a Crime?” appeared during the first week of April.
In May, the judge who heard the case, Toktosun Kasymbekov, sued Ibraimov for libel under Article 127, Clause 2 of the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, which provides for fines but not jail terms for those found guilty of defamation.
In a June 22 protest letter to President Askar Akayev, CPJ argued that the jail sentence appeared to violate Kyrgyz law, along with international standards for a free press. On July 20, Ibraimov was released by the Jalal-Abad Regional Court that heard his appeal. His fine was reduced from 100,000 soms (US$1230) to 10,000 soms (US$123).
Internews-Kyrgyzstan, the local branch of the California-based company that supports the efforts of independent TV stations in many developing democracies around the world, provided essential legal support in securing Ismailov’s release.
A civil libel suit was brought against the opposition newspaper Asaba in the Lenin Court in Bishkek. Parliamentary Deputy Turdakun Usubaliev, a former first secretary of the Central Committee of the Kyrgyz Communist Party, claimed that the twice-weekly Kyrgyz-language newspaper had insulted him repeatedly over the past eight years, and demanded 50 million soms (US$1 million) in compensation. Usubaliev claimed that the paper had accused him of nepotism and other “mistakes.”
Hearings in the case began on August 29. On December 18, the court imposed a fine of 5 million soms (US$100,000) on the newspaper. Asaba appealed the ruling, arguing that the trial was unfair because the defense was not allowed to present witnesses, and because the judge did not speak Kyrgyz. The appeal was still pending at press time.
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Vadim Nochevkin, Delo N
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Viktor Zapolsky, Delo N
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Svetlana Krasilnikova, Delo N
HARASSED, LEGAL ACTION
Nochevkin, a reporter for the Bishkek independent weekly Delo N, Zapolsky, the paper’s editor, and Krasilnikova, the deputy editor, were targets of a criminal investigation shortly after they reported on the secret trial of former official Feliks Kulov.
The Ministry of National Security investigated Delo N for publishing allegedly classified information gleaned from the trial. On August 16, in order to circumvent the requirement of legal representation, all three journalists were called as witnesses, rather than suspects, in a case against Nochevkin and Delo N.
Zapolsky and Nochevkin were each interrogated for five hours, while Krasilnikova was questioned for over seven hours. She was denied food and water and was allowed only one short break during her ordeal.
The next day, Krasilnikova was admitted to the intensive care ward at the National Hospital in Bishkek, suffering from high blood pressure and heart problems. She claimed her ailments were triggered by Captain Melis Abdukalykov’s aggressive interrogation.
CPJ protested the harassment of the three Delo N journalists in an August 23 letter to President Askar Akayev. On September 19, the paper’s entire staff was barred from leaving their desks or from using the phones for three and a half hours, while some two dozen Ministry of National Security officers searched their offices. At the same time, police also searched the homes of Zapolsky and Krasilnikova, who are married, and Nochevkin.
The day after the searches, Delo N published a statement saying that if government persecution of the paper continued, the entire staff would seek asylum abroad in order to continue publishing.
On November 29, authorities charged the paper with revealing state secrets. Zapolsky, Krasilnikova, and Nochevkin were charged under Article 300 of the Criminal Code, which carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison, and a five-year professional ban. On January 11, 2001, the prosecutor general ruled that further investigation in the case was necessary.
Deputy Security Minister Boris Poluektov filed a separate suit against Delo N based on the July 26 article, demanding US$50,000 in compensation. He also filed a separate suit against Vadim Nochevkin over an April 12 article that he claimed had libeled and insulted him. The libel claim was dismissed on December 1, but the other cases were still pending at year’s end.