In a dramatic turnaround, public outrage over fraudulent parliamentary elections forced President Askar Akayev out of office after 14 years of authoritarian rule in this Central Asian nation.
The Akayev administration’s aggressively repressive media policies gave way in midyear to a more tolerant press freedom climate under Kurmanbek Bakiyev and his new government. A former prime minister, Bakiyev promised to transform the state broadcaster into an independent outlet, and he pledged to improve overall press conditions. Still, journalists continued to face ongoing political pressures and sporadic physical attacks. Bakiyev, considered an ally of Akayev, was criticized for not moving forward swiftly with some promised reforms.
But the worst abuses against the media occurred early in the year, in the weeks before and after the troubled elections that brought down Akayev. Authorities excluded opposition candidates from the ballot, obstructed political rallies, tampered with ballots, and harassed the independent media during two rounds of voting, in February and in March.
State and private pro-government broadcasters received instructions from the Akayev administration on how to cover the election, and they often engaged in smear campaigns against supposed “extremists” in the political opposition and independent media, according to local press reports. Akayev accused the independent daily MSN (formerly Moya Stolitsa-Novosti) of waging “systematic information terror” after an article alleging that the president’s family was involved in questionable business deals. Akayev threatened legal action, but his many other problems prevented his following through.
In the week before the first round of voting on February 27, authorities scrambled to silence the few sources of independent news by cutting off electricity to the country’s only independent printing house and shuttering the influential Kyrgyz service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). Independent and opposition news Web sites also experienced technical difficulties, raising suspicions that security agents were blocking reports on growing anti-government sentiment, the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy reported. The problems continued through the second round of voting on March 13.
Popular frustration at election abuses—added to long-simmering discontent about government corruption and cronyism—finally boiled over in late March, leading to large anti-Akayev rallies in the country’s southern provinces and in the capital. The revolt became known as the Tulip Revolution.
Several journalists were injured on March 23, when police and Akayev supporters tried to break up the escalating protests. The head of the country’s independent Journalists Trade Union, Azamat Kalman, suffered two broken legs after he was beaten by police officers dispersing protests in the capital, Bishkek, and then pushed off a 10-foot-high ledge by Akayev supporters. Police briefly detained Bolotbek Maripov, a journalist with the newspaper Obshchestveny Reiting. Looters seeking to hide their identities roughed up television crews from Moscow-based stations REN-TV and Moskoviya.
At the same time, government officials obstructed or shuttered sources of independent news, according to local reports. Officials at Kyrgyz National University in Bishkek prevented students from getting copies of the opposition newspaper MSN, and a state printer refused to publish the independent newspaper Tribuna, which reports on human rights abuses, according to the Osh Media Center, a media training organization.
State media were virtually silent on the unrest until it all came to a head on March 24. Senior government officials prevented journalists at the state-run Kyrgyz National Television & Radio Corporation (KTR) from reporting on rallies protesting the conduct of the voting, according to international press reports. Protesters in the country’s impoverished south, angered by the state broadcaster’s failure to report on the demonstrations, attacked KTR journalists amid the March 24 unrest. “During the demonstrations and disturbances in the south, the [protesters] simply drove away the KTR journalists, breaking their expensive digital cameras,” Osh Media Center reported.
While opposition activists stormed government buildings in the capital on March 24, KTR broadcast nature programs. Station management finally fled during the protests, and two KTR journalists appeared on the air to urge calm and to promise that the station would start reporting on the crisis. Its journalists made good on the pledge in large part, although the station was plagued for months by internal disputes over, among other things, its pro-government editorial policy.
Akayev and his family fled the country when angry mobs stormed the presidential building in central Bishkek on March 24. He eventually resurfaced in Moscow and resigned from his post on April 4. This allowed the fractious political opposition that had taken control of Bishkek and parts of the countryside to install Bakiyev as interim leader until a presidential election could be held on July 10. KTR as well as some of the private pro-Akayev media quickly moved to support the interim president.
Amid lingering lawlessness and efforts to track down Akayev’s illicit wealth, Bakiyev committed his government to supporting press freedom and transforming KTR into an independent public-service broadcaster. He also appointed one of the country’s most famous independent journalists, former Res Publika editor Zamira Sydykova, as ambassador to the United States. Nonetheless, some journalists and press freedom activists criticized Bakiyev for stalling the KTR reforms at a time when he was preparing for the presidential election and eager to ensure positive media coverage, according to local reports.
Authorities also imposed some media restrictions in May amid a diplomatic crisis with neighboring Uzbekistan, when several hundred antigovernment protesters fled to Kyrgyzstan to escape persecution by Uzbek security forces. According to the news Web site monitoring.kg, local Kyrgyz authorities prevented journalists from interviewing the refugees and in some cases confiscated their equipment, claiming that the news reporting would anger Uzbek authorities, who were insisting on forceful repatriation of the protestors.
In June and early July, acting president Bakiyev received extensive positive media coverage during the presidential election campaign. He easily won the July 10 vote, and appointed as prime minister Feliks Kulov, a charismatic former police chief who had been imprisoned by Akayev.
The new government established media reform commissions in cooperation with media training organizations such as Internews and the Bishkek-based press freedom group Journalists Public Association. These commissions started planning KTR reforms and drafting a new media law and options for privatizing some state media outlets. The prospect of privatization raised concern among state media managers of how they would survive without state subsidies in the impoverished country, according to local and international reports.
In the meantime, though, state media were still plagued by charges of politicized management. KOORT public educational radio and television went off the air in late October when the staff went on strike for a week to protest pressure from managers to praise the Bakiyev government, according to press reports.
Some ongoing lawlessness meant that journalists continued to face occasional threats, harassment, and physical attacks in retaliation for their news reporting. Makhmud Kazakbayev, a journalist for the newspaper Demos Taimz, was beaten on the evening of September 14 after having received threats from a politician angered by his articles, according to monitoring.kg.