Press freedom in Kyrgyzstan suffered major setbacks in 2001 as President Askar Akayev continued his increasingly repressive curtailment of dissent. Politically motivated civil libel suits resulted in exorbitant damage awards, driving some newsapers to the brink of bankruptcy.
In March, a Bishkek court ordered the Uchkun Publishing House to stop printing Asaba, the oldest and most popular Kyrgyz-language publication in the country, until the paper had paid fines and damages totaling 8 million soms (about US$160,000).
For two weeks in March, the Bishkek-based opposition weekly Res Publica published articles by Asaba. But when officials began confiscating Asaba‘s property on March 15, they also impounded 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms) of newsprint stored at Uchkun. That effectively blocked 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. Asaba remains closed, but in October government loyalists opened a new, pro-government newspaper under the same name.
In a separate case, the Pervomaisky District Court found Res Publica guilty on October 17 of defaming Aleksandr Yeliseyev, a former member of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR). The newspaper was ordered to pay 300,000 soms (more than US$6,300) in damages for publishing several articles earlier in the year about the circumstances surrounding Eliseev’s 1997 dismissal from the KCHR.
Sardarbek Botaliyev, another former KCHR member, also sued Res Publica, accusing the paper of defaming him in a series of articles about his 1996 dismissal from the KCHR.
These cases followed a February ruling that forced Res Publica to pay an overdue fine stemming from two 1999 libel cases. Though the paper has been publishing somewhat regularly online, it has had difficulty producing hard copies.
The government also used convoluted registration regulations to curb the opposition press. In April and May, the Justice Ministry granted registration to 16 new media outlets, including the independent newspapers Moya Stolitsa, Agym, Techeniye, and Joltiken, only to rescind all 16 registrations in June. The ministry explained that the 16 new outlets were registered before all existing media outlets had renewed their registration, which violated a decision that the ministry had secretly adopted on April 5.
In separate lawsuits, Moya Stolitsa editor-in-chief Aleskandr Kim and Bakyt Jamalidinov, the publisher of Agym, Techeniye and Joltiken, challenged the ministry’s actions. Jamalidinov dropped his case after the Justice Ministry registered his papers in early November. They began publishing later that month, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Moya Stolitsa‘s lawsuit was still pending in early 2002, although the newspaper’s staff was working at another newly registered publication, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti.
Despite lengthy debates and high expectations, parliament failed to repeal criminal libel statutes. Parliamentary committee member Azimbek Beknazarov told local reporters that the Justice Ministry, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and the Supreme Court felt it was “too early” to repeal the laws.
Meanwhile, the government proposed other legislation that critics said could be used to jail journalists who criticize the government. The broad and vague Decree 358, unveiled in July, would have revised Article 297 of Kyrgzystan’s Criminal Code to establish prison terms for activities aimed at overthrowing or undermining constitutional order. After loud domestic and international protests, the decree was withdrawn. The government said it would revise the proposal, but had not done so by year’s end.
A local court in Bishkek ordered the Uchkun Publishing House not to print the independent weekly Res Publica until the paper settled overdue fines from two libel cases.
Zamira Sydykova, the weekly’s editor, said that because the newspaper had no money to pay the fines, it was unable to print its February 27 and March 6 issues. The fines were then paid and the newspaper released its March 13 issue.
Res Publica‘s March 30 and April 6 editions were also censored when Uchkun refused to print them after the Justice Ministry warned Res Publica not to publish work by reporters from Asaba, an opposition weekly that had been forced to close.
On April 5, Res Publica hired all of Asaba’s former journalists in order to overcome legal issues with publishing their materials. Four days later, Justice Ministry officials said that the printer could resume printing Res Publica.
Res Publica owed one-quarter of a 200,000 soms (about US$4,200) fine imposed in March 1999 for allegedly violating the “honor and dignity” of Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the National Radio and Television Corporation.
The paper incurred Karypkulov’s wrath by publishing an open letter from the company’s employees calling for his dismissal.
Res Publica had been paying the fine in installments. The paper also owed 20,000 soms (about US$420) under a March 2000 judgment that it had defamed local politician Sadyrbek Botaliyev. Res Publica had reported that Botaliyev was attempting to undermine the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee by launching a rival organization.
LEGAL ACTION, CENSORED
A Bishkek court ordered the Uchkun Publishing House to stop printing issues of Asaba, the oldest and most popular Kyrgyz-language publication in the country, until it had paid fines and damages totaling 8 million soms (about US$160,000), including an unprecedented US$100,000 damage award to parliamentary deputy Turdakun Usubaliyev. 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 another paper, Res Publica. But when officials began confiscating Asaba‘s property on March 15, they also impounded 3,000 kilograms of newsprint stored at Uchkun. That action effectively blocked the publication of both newspapers, since Res Publica had 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 was unprofitable, 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 claimed that the newspaper owed it more than one million soms (about US$22,000). Asaba disputed the claim in the Court of Appeals, which on February 20 ruled in favor of Kumtor.
On March 20, CPJ protested the harassment of Asaba in a letter to Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev. The paper remained closed at year’s end, but in October, government loyalists opened a new, pro-government newspaper under the same name.
Moldosaly Ibraimov, Akyykat
The Jalal-Abad District Court reversed its decision to free Ibraimov, a reporter with the newspaper Akyykat, who was cleared of criminal libel charges in June 2000.
A local judge, Toktosun Kasymbekov, brought libel charges against Ibraimov after the journalist reported that Kasymbekov had accepted a 730,000 som (US$15,000) bribe in connection with a legal dispute between two local politicians.
On June 19, 2000, Ibraimov was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison and a 107,000 som (US$2,200) fine. After winning an appeal, the journalist was freed on July 20, 2000.
Kasymbekov appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which instructed the district court to review its decision. On March 13, the original conviction was reinstated. The court then suspended the jail sentence.
Ibraimov’s defense lawyer, Akmat Alagushev, filed a complaint with the Supreme Court. In April, Kasymbekov withdrew his charges against Ibraimov after the journalist printed a retraction of his original allegations, Alagushev told CPJ.
Viktor Zapolsky, Delo N
The Pervomaisky District Court of Bishkek ordered Zapolsky, editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Delo N, to pay 50,000 soms (US$1,000) in damages for allegedly defaming Security Council secretary Misir Ashyrkulov.
Ashyrkulov had filed a lawsuit against Zapolsky seeking 1 million soms (more than US$21,000) in damages.
Originally, Secretary Ashyrkulov lodged a 3 million som (more than US$60,000) suit against the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Kyrgyzstane and its editor-in-chief, Arkady Gladilov, for publishing an interview with Zapolsky in which he criticized the National Security Service. Ashyrkolov claimed that Zapolsky’s statements damaged his professional reputation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported.
In February, Ashyrkulov dropped his suit against Komsomolskaya Pravda v Kyrgyzstane. The next month he dropped the suit against Gladilov but elected to pursue his case against Zapolsky.
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The Kyrgyz Justice Ministry rescinded certificates of registration for 16 new media outlets.
Throughout April and May, the Justice Ministry granted media certificates and then rescinded them, citing a previously unknown decision halting the registration of new media outlets until established media outlets had completed the registration process. The ministry claimed to have issued that decision on April 5, 2001.
On June 26, Moya Stolitsa editor-in-chief Aleskandr Kim filed a lawsuit against the Justice Ministry challenging the validity of both the April 5 decision and the ministry’s subsequent cancellation of the 16 certificates.
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 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 extended the reregistration deadline for registered media outlets to October 1.
After that, new publications were able to register. While the Moya Stolitsa case continues to be disputed in court, the newspaper’s staff registered a new publication, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, and published it in early November, RFE/RL reported.
Also in early November, the Justice Ministry finally registered Agym, which began publishing later that month, according to RFE/RL.
CPJ protested the extreme delays in registering media outlets in an August 22 letter to President Askar Akayev.
The Presidential Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic adopted a decree to amend Article 297 of the Criminal code, making it easier to jail journalists who criticize the government.
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.
Parliament was scheduled to review the proposed legislation in September, according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. However, due to domestic and international pressure, the Presidential Administration retracted the amendment decree.
CPJ protested the decree in an August 22 letter to President Askar Akayev.
Bishkek’s Pervomaisky District Court began its trial of the opposition weekly Res Publica, which was charged with slander by former Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR) member Sardarbek Botaliyev, according to Kyrgyz and international sources. Botaliyev sought 1,000,000 soms (about US $21,000).
The case stemmed from a series of articles published earlier in the year. According to former KCHR head Ramazan Dyryldayev, who lives in exile in Vienna, Botaliyev was dismissed from the organization in 1996 for theft and was prosecuted on those charges. However, the authorities later dismissed the charges against Botaliyev in exchange for his testimony against Dyryldayev in relation to other criminal charges.
Res Publica editor Zamira Sydykova did not attend all court proceedings, maintaining that the lawsuit’s outcome was predetermined, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The case was still before the court at year’s end.
The Pervomaisky District Court found the Bishkek opposition weekly Res Publica guilty of defaming Aleksandr Yeliseyev, a former member of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights (KCHR), according to local and international reports. The newspaper was ordered to pay damages of 300,000 soms (about US $6,300).
Yeliseyev filed a lawsuit against the weekly after it published several articles by the current and former KCHR leadership about his 1997 dismissal from the committee. According to Res Publica editor-in-chief Zamira Sydykova, the articles’ authors came to Res Publica after Yeliseyev published a story in another publication that allegedly insulted them.
At the trial, which began in September, Yeliseyev sought 1,500,000 (about US $31,600) in damages. Sydykova planned to appeal the verdict, reported Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.