Months of discontent over President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s failure to enact reforms to combat crime, corruption, and economic woes boiled over in November when thousands of protesters gathered for a week of demonstrations in the central square of the capital, Bishkek. Bakiyev, ushered into office in a popular uprising just 19 months earlier, averted a crisis when he agreed to a new constitution sharply restricting his own powers. The new constitution, which was hailed internationally, limited the president’s powers to dissolve parliament and gave the legislature broad authority to appoint key government officials.
Tensions were high during the standoff as up to 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside the government seat. On the second day of protests, authorities blocked plans for opposition leaders to appear live on state television; on day six, a live radio broadcast of an emergency session of parliament was interrupted for three hours. The November 9 constitutional agreement, which Bakiyev called “the result of good sense and wisdom,” avoided a violent showdown and allowed the embattled president, whose term runs until 2010, to remain in office.
Yet conflict loomed in late year. The For Reforms movement, a coalition of opposition groups, urged Bakiyev to make good on his pledges to transform the state broadcaster into an independent public channel. Bakiyev, who had vetoed one such plan in September, said through a spokesman in mid-November that the National Television & Radio Broadcast Corporation (KTR) would remain state owned and controlled, The Associated Press reported. Bakiyev decreed that the channel would be managed by a new council of legislators, presidential appointees, and station managers.
The 2005 Tulip Revolution that toppled Askar Akayev’s repressive government had raised hopes that a free press would flourish under a new president seen as more tolerant of independent media. But hobbled by political instability, organized crime, contract killings, and high unemployment, Bakiyev instead displayed an authoritarian hand in exerting tight control over public institutions and the media through much of the year. His justice minister, Marat Kaipov, twice advanced plans to regulate nongovernmental organizations under the guise of protecting national security.
On January 27, KTR journalists protested what they saw as government interference after Bayama Sutenova, a close Bakiyev ally, was appointed deputy director of the agency. The government called Sutenova’s appointment part of a KTR reorganization, according to local press reports. The government also discontinued its transmissions of the independent Kyrgyz New TV Net (NTS) in the Osh, Balykchy, Batken, and Talas regions, replacing it with a second state channel, El TV. NTS, which was reliant on government transmissions to reach those regions, said the government was retaliating for the station’s critical reporting. The Production Association of Television and Radio Relay Lines, the government’s regulator, said it was implementing a presidential decree to spread El TV’s signal throughout Kyrgyzstan, according to international news reports.
Regional governments tried to emulate the national administration’s hard-nosed approach. Local officials in the southern city of Osh directed the private television stations OshTV, Mezon TV, Almaz, and Pyramid, along with the newspaper Vecherny Osh, to regularly cover government efforts to prevent crime and drug use and to combat HIV/AIDS. Local media defied the order, saying government stipulations compromised their independence. “We have the right to decide what to cover and what not to cover; we will report on those issues that are in the interest of our viewers, not the authorities,” the Bishkek-based Public Association of Journalists (PAJ) said.
Government authorities also exercised control over state print media. In January, Bakyt Orunbekov was fired as editor-in-chief of the state-owned Kyrgyz Tuusu (Kyrgyzstan’s Flag). Jediger Saalaev, press officer for the Kyrgyz government, was blunt in saying that Orunbekov was fired for the critical nature of his work. “A newspaper that belongs to the government should not criticize the government,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) quoted him as saying.
Despite Bakiyev’s efforts to impose order, criminal groups flourished. The Olympic wrestler Raatbek Sanatbaev was murdered in January amid a spree of contract-style killings. Journalists who reported on crime were vulnerable as well. On January 30, the office of Vecherny Bishkek was set on fire after it published several articles on an alleged crime boss. Police declared it arson, but no arrests were made or charges filed, according to international press reports.
Criminal groups were believed to have menaced independent television stations as well. In April, an unidentified man telephoned Yelena Chernyavskaya, director of the Bishkek-based Pyramid, to say, “Shut up or get ready for death,” and someone sent her a text message with the same threat. After she filed a complaint, the Interior Ministry provided her with a bodyguard and sent officers to guard the station’s office.
Pyramid was targeted twice more in late year. On September 28, unidentified vandals torched its transmission facilities outside Bishkek, causing 7,794,800 som (US$200,000) in damage and disrupting broadcasts for a month. The men also attacked a guard and two technicians, RFE/RL reported. And on November 7, five men attacked Pyramid’s chief editor, Turat Bektenov, on his way home in Bishkek. The journalist suffered multiple bruises and abrasions, PAJ reported.