Emboldened by the growing number of U.S. troops in the country, President Askar Akayev has used the threat of international terrorism as an excuse to curb political dissent and suppress the independent and opposition media in Kyrgyzstan. Compliant courts often issue exorbitant damage awards in politically motivated libel suits, driving even the country’s most prominent newspapers to the brink of bankruptcy.
In early 2002, the private media continued to seek to open an independent publishing house. Currently, the state publisher, Uchkun, prints all independent publications based in the capital, Bishkek. On January 14, the government approved the Provisional Regulation on Publishing Activities, which grants the Justice Ministry licensing rights and limits printing rights to partially or wholly state-owned companies. Though officials claimed that the new statute would “prevent subversive ideological and propaganda work of various extremist religious centers,” the independent press believed that the true goal of the regulation was to thwart efforts spearheaded by the international community to create an independent publisher. In late May, a wave of popular protest forced Akayev to rescind the regulation.
When officials arrested Akayev’s political rival, parliamentarian Azimbek Beknazarov, in January on charges of abusing power and for official misconduct allegedly committed seven years earlier, mass protests erupted in the southern Aksy Region. After several peaceful protesters were killed during clashes with police in mid-March, the opposition called for Akayev’s resignation, while the prime minister and the Cabinet quit.
During this political crisis, Kyrgyzstan’s media split along political lines. Pro-government outlets blamed violence on the opposition, while the independent and opposition media faulted the government. Meanwhile, a state commission investigating the killings found that the National Broadcasting Company’s “biased reporting” had in part incited unrest. In response, the president created a public council to monitor the broadcaster. In June, the case against Beknazarov was dropped.
Amid this souring political climate, the state readily muzzled the independent press. In late January, Uchkun refused to print the independent Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, reportedly in retaliation for its strong criticism of the Akayev government and family. After the independent weekly Res Publica offered to print Moya Stolitsa-Novosti on its pages, Uchkun suspended Res Publica‘s publication, citing a fine owed in an earlier defamation lawsuit. Both newspapers continued to post online versions and resumed print publication in May. Res Publica was forced to pay the hefty fine.
Meanwhile, politicians and businessmen continued to file libel lawsuits against
publications that covered official corruption. Moya Stolitsa-Novosti found itself embroiled in a number of politically motivated cases and in danger of bankruptcy. The newspaper’s supporters rushed to create the Committee to Defend the Newspaper
Moya Stolitsa, which protested what they believed was a political campaign to destroy the publication.
One of the most bizarre cases came after State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov accused Moya Stolitsa-Novosti of mocking the Kyrgyz people’s “national sentiment” in an October 4 article that expressed doubt about the officially recognized age of Kyrgyzstan–2,200 years. The government has planned an extravagant celebration of the state’s 2,200th anniversary in 2003. After Ibraimov’s statement, the newspaper faced a deluge of libel lawsuits from Kyrgyz citizens seeking damages. Most notably, a man named Akin Toktaliyev, feeling that, as a Kyrgyz citizen, he was libeled by the article’s disparaging tone, sued the paper, seeking 5 million soms (US$108,200) and 50,000 soms (US$1,080) from the newspaper and the author, respectively. The verdict was scheduled to be announced in early 2003.
Moya Stolitsa-Novosti also faced extensive verbal government harassment for its unyielding criticism of official corruption and abuse of power, with the Internal Affairs Ministry going so far as to say the paper contributed to interethnic strife and instability by criticizing law enforcement authorities.
The Uchkun Publishing House, a state-run monopoly, ceased printing the independent daily Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, citing lack of contract for the year 2002. The popular newspaper is known for its criticism of official corruption and abuse of power. The newspaper sued the publisher, and on January 29, a Bishkek court ordered Uchkun to print Moya Stolitsa-Novosti until the legal case against Uchkun is
heard in court. However, a few days later, on February 4, the same court reversed
Another publication, the independent weekly Res Publica, offered to print Moya Stolitsa-Novosti on its pages beginning on January 22, but Uchkun soon refused to print Res Publica. Both newspapers continued to post online versions.
Sources at Moya Stolitsa-Novosti told CPJ that on May 3, Uchkun announced that it was ready to resume printing the newspaper, but only after Moya Stolitsa-Novosti withdrew its January lawsuit against the publisher. The newspaper refused. Uchkun began printing the publication again on May 22, after reaching an agreement with Moya Stolitsa-Novosti editor-in-chief Aleksandr Kim.
After the Uchkun Publishing House refused on January 19 to print an independent daily Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, the independent weekly Res Publica offered to print the newspaper on its pages. As a result, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti transferred its paper stock to Res Publica and notified Uchkun in a letter. However, Uchkun suspended Res Publica‘s printing, citing a fine owed in an earlier defamation lawsuit. The newspaper continued to post an online version. In early May, Res Publica resumed publication, after paying a hefty fine.
Lyudmila Zholmukhamedova, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti
In late December, Akin Toktaliyev, who claimed to be a private citizen with no
government connections, sued Moya Stolitsa-Novosti for defamation. He said he was defamed by an October 4 article by Zholmukhamedova, which expressed skepticism about the officially recognized age of Kyrgyzstan’s statehood–2,200 years. The government has planned an extravagant celebration of the anniversary in 2003.
Toktaliyev claimed that, as a Kyrgyz citizen, he was defamed by the article’s demeaning tone. He sought 5 million soms (US$108,220) from the paper and 50,000 soms (US$1,080) from Zholmukhamedova in damages. The lawsuit came after
State Secretary Osmonak’n Ibraimov accused the paper of mocking the Kyrgyz people’s “national sentiment” in the October 4 article. At year’s end, the case was ongoing.