March 20, 2001
His Excellency Askar Akayev
President of Kyrgyzstan
Kirov St. 205
Via Fax: 011-996-312-218-627
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by your government’s recent crackdown on independent and opposition media in Kyrgyzstan, exemplified by the recent closure of the opposition twice-weekly newspaper Asaba and the suspension of the independent weekly Res Publica.
CPJ believes the Kyrgyz government, along with companies and individuals reportedly close to it, are using tax laws and other legal tools at their disposal in an effort to silence popular publications that have criticized Your Excellency’s regime.
On February 13, a local court in Bishkek ordered the Uchkun Publishing House to cease printing Res Publica until it had paid off two overdue libel fines. At the time of the ruling, Res Publica owed damages of 70,000 soms (about US$1,500) to Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the National Radio and Television Corporation (NRTC), and local politician Sadyrbek Botaliev for allegedly violating their “honor and dignity.” The fines were imposed in 1999 and 2000 respectively.
The weekly did not appear on February 27 and March 6, since the paper’s bank accounts were frozen by court order. Lacking sufficient funds to pay the fines, Res Publica turned to local political parties and non-profit organizations for help. After raising the necessary money and paying off the fines, the paper resumed publication on March 13.
On March 6, meanwhile, another Bishkek court ordered Uchkun not to print further issues of Asaba, the oldest and most popular Kyrgyz-language publication in the country, until it had paid fines and damages totaling eight million soms (about US$160,000), including an unprecedented US$100,000 damage award to parliamentary deputy Turdakun Usubaliev. The court also ruled that any money coming into the newspaper’s bank accounts would be garnished to pay the fines.
For two weeks in March, articles by Asaba journalists appeared in Res Publica. But when officials began confiscating Asaba‘s property on March 15, they also impounded 3,000 kilograms of newsprint stored at Uchkun. This effectively blocks the publication of both newspapers, since Res Publica has no paper reserves of its
own. On March 19, Asaba‘s owner announced that the newspaper was suspending publication indefinitely. Because the joint project with Res Publica had not been profitable, he said, Asaba would have to seek other solutions for its financial problems.
Asaba‘s effective closure followed several years of harassment from Kyrgyz tax authorities. In 1998, authorities demanded some US$42,000 in allegedly overdue taxes. The charges were dropped last year. But on February 27, chief tax official Aziz Momunkulov again charged the newspaper with tax evasion.
The newspaper’s financial troubles were exacerbated by a financial dispute with the Kumtor Operating Company (a subsidiary of Canada’s Cameco Corporation), which reportedly has close links to the Kyrgyz government. Kumtor claims that the newspaper owes it over million soms (about US$22,000). Asaba disputed the claim in the Court of Appeals, which on February 20 ruled in favor of Kumtor.
As an organization of journalists dedicated to defending the rights of our colleagues around the world, CPJ condemns the ongoing harassment of Asaba and Res Publica. We urge you to ensure that official persecution of these publications ceases at once, and that both newspapers are allowed to print without further impediment.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper