August 22, 2001
His Excellency Askar Akayev
President of Kyrgyzstan
Kirov St. 205
Via Facsimile: 011-996-312-218-627
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply disturbed by your government’s recent harassment of several new independent media outlets. And we heartily object to a recent presidential decree that will make it easier to imprison journalists who criticize the government.
Throughout April and May, the Justice Ministry granted certificates of registration to 16 new media outlets, local and international sources reported. They included the independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa, staffed by journalists from the formerly independent Bishkek-based Vecherniy Bishkek, which was taken over by one of your close associates at the end of 1999.
The ministry also registered the independent newspapers Agym, Techeniye, and Joltiken, composed of former staff from the Bishkek daily Asaba, which declared bankruptcy in April 2001 after it lost a battle over loan repayments and could not pay an unprecedented US$100,000 in damages for allegedly libeling a parliamentary deputy.
After initially approving the 16 new media registrations, the Justice Ministry rescinded the registrations on June 20, citing a previously unknown decision, which the ministry claimed to have issued on April 5, 2001. The decision halted the registration of new media outlets until already registered media outlets had reregistered.
On June 26, Moya Stolitsa editor-in-chief Aleksandr Kim filed a lawsuit against the Justice Ministry challenging the validity of both the April 5 decision and the ministry’s subsequent decision to cancel the 16 registrations.
Six days later, Bakyt Jamalidinov, the publisher of Agym, Techeniye, and Joltiken, filed a separate lawsuit against the ministry on the same grounds. During the following weeks, the Bishkek City Arbitration Court postponed hearings for both cases several times.
On July 30, the court declined to review the Moya Stolitsa case and transferred the suit to a civil court. While the newspapers were preparing their cases, the ministry announced that it was extending the re-registration deadline for currently registered media outlets to October 1.
Your administration’s previous harassment of Asaba and the takeover of Vecherniy Bishkek leads us to believe that the April 5 decision may have been adopted to prevent the former staff of these publications from establishing new independent newspapers.
CPJ is also disturbed by proposed legislation that will give government officials greater latitude to intimidate and imprison journalists who dare to criticize government policies. On July 18, the Presidential Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic adopted a decree that revises Article 297 of the Criminal Code.
The revised Article 297 states that activities intended to change or weaken the established constitutional order by force are punishable by up to three years imprisonment. If such activities are funded by foreign organizations, they are punishable by three to five years in prison.
Meanwhile, the new Article 297-1 prescribes up to three years in prison and allows for confiscation of any property owned by persons who produce or distribute information intended to overthrow or undermine the constitutional order of the Kyrgyz Republic.
CPJ is profoundly troubled by these broad and redundant statutes, which will strengthen the government’s ability to stifle independent criticism of government policies. As a nonpartisan organization of journalists devoted to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ also deplores your government’s recent efforts to restrict and delay the development of new independent media outlets in Kyrgyzstan.
We call on the Kyrgyz government to withdraw the proposed legislation, to grant any outstanding media licenses with all possible speed, and to ensure that independent journalists are allowed to work without bureaucratic obstruction.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We await your reply.
Ann K. Cooper