Once regarded as one of Central Asia’s more progressive countries, impoverished Kyrgyzstan has become highly repressive when it comes to the press. Despite having cast himself as a liberal when he took office in 1991, in recent years President Askar Akayev has tightened the government’s grip on the independent and opposition media.
Senior government officials, including Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, have relied on civil and criminal defamation laws to attack media outlets that criticize their policies or produce investigative stories about official corruption. Exorbitant financial penalties imposed by the courts pushed a few media outlets toward financial collapse in 2003.
The independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti, based in the capital, Bishkek, continued to be the target of a large number of politically motivated lawsuits during 2003. The paper, which is well known for its investigations into high-level corruption, is one of the only publications that openly criticizes the government. After enduring continued legal harassment that resulted in hefty fines, the publication printed its final hard-copy issue on June 13 but shortly thereafter started a print and online version under the name MSN.
According to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in the course of Moya Stolitsa-Novosti‘s two-year existence in print, the paper faced 31 lawsuits and paid nearly US$90,700 in damages to plaintiffs ranging from politicians to businessmen. The legal actions against the paper began in late 2002, when Prime Minister Tanaev filed a suit in response to a November 26, 2002, article that he said offended his honor and dignity. The article, written by political editor and investigative reporter Rina Prizhivoit, criticized the policies of President Akayev and his inner circle, including Tanaev.
Presidential Press Secretary Abdil Segizbaev denied that the criminal libel lawsuits were politically motivated, claiming that they were merely responses to violations of the law, according to an interview he gave to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Libel suits were the predominant method employed by Kyrgyz authorities to stifle critical voices in 2003. However, there were cases of assaults on journalists. In mid-January in Bishkek, two unidentified assailants attacked Moya Stolitsa-Novosti journalist Aleksandra Chernykh, beating her in front of her 11-year-old daughter. Chernykh’s colleagues believe that the attack was a warning to the journalist’s mother and colleague at the paper, the political editor Prizhivoit.
In late February, Kyrgyz authorities forced Edil Baysalov, an opposition leader and editor of the independent weekly Demokrat, to undergo a medical exam and detained him in the hospital for three days. The hospitalization coincided with Baysalov’s scheduled appearance at a roundtable discussion in Kyrgyzstan, organized by the local office of the U.S.-based nongovernmental group Freedom House, where he was to discuss voter turnout for the February 2 constitutional referendum.
The referendum, approved by 75 percent of voters, ratified a new constitution put forward by Akayev, as well as an amendment for an extension of his term in office to December 2005. Opposition parties, nongovernmental organizations, and independent journalists questioned the legitimacy of the referendum’s results. In addition to omitting any references to press freedom in the new constitution, the document contained vague restrictions on journalists’ rights to gather and distribute information.
In September, journalists were alarmed by the death of Ernis Nazalov, of the Bishkek daily Kyrgyz Ruhu, whose body was found on the bank of a canal in the southern Kara-Suu District. Nazalov had been investigating government corruption at the time of his death. An incomplete police investigation failed to clarify the circumstances of his death, raising suspicions that it was not accidental.
Ninety-five percent of Kyrgyz journalists polled by the government-sponsored Media Council in the fall of 2003 wanted defamation decriminalized, and they suggested amendments to the existing media law that would protect the dignity and honor of journalists. In mid-December, Akayev forwarded a bill to Parliament that would decriminalize defamation. If approved, the law would require defamation cases to be tried in civil, not criminal, courts. The bill did not specify a maximum amount for the fine to be imposed on convicted journalists and media outlets. While some journalists welcomed the bill, others doubted that it would alleviate the pressure on independent media. Few plaintiffs seek jail terms for journalists; instead, they demand excessive monetary fines that leave news outlets on the brink of financial collapse. At year’s end, Parliament had not yet voted on the bill.
On a positive note, in November, Freedom House, which has an office in Bishkek, set up an independent publishing house, ending the state printer Uchkun’s monopoly in the capital. The new Freedom House printer is open to both state and independent publications. Uchkun has often refused to print content that officials might consider offensive. According to international observers, the new printer will finally allow opposition papers to publish without fear of censorship or retribution.