Attacks on the Press 2007: Kyrgyzstan


One prominent editor was slain and other journalists faced escalating government harassment, violent attacks, and lawlessness amid intense political rivalry between President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and opposition parties in parliament. In the face of recurring protests, Bakiyev periodically made political concessions to the opposition, only to withdraw or undermine the agreements after demonstrators had gone home. Seemingly focused on political obfuscation, the administration was unable to effectively tackle widespread crime, corruption, and poverty, and Bakiyev became steadily more reliant on authoritarian policies to keep the upper hand with opposition parties, civil society activists, and independent journalists.

After coming to power in the March 2005 “Tulip Revolution”—a populist revolt against the corrupt rule of former President Askar Akayev—Bakiyev continued to bog down in bickering with opposition parties about the constitutional balance of power. While Kyrgyzstan remained the only genuinely pluralistic country in Central Asia, with an active parliament, dynamic media, and truly competitive political system, the intense political rivalry polarized the country and allowed organized crime groups to flourish, making independent news reporting increasingly dangerous.

Reflecting Bakiyev’s increasingly authoritarian style, his government overreacted to sympathetic coverage of the major opposition rallies of November 2006. During late 2006 and early 2007, prosecutors and National Security Committee (KNB) officers summoned senior managers of the independent television station NTS for questioning about its coverage of the rallies, according to local press reports. Bakiyev’s ultimate rejection of a November 2006 constitutional powers agreement—and the ensuing harassment of the media—angered the political opposition during the winter of 2007.

Journalists in the capital, Bishkek, and in the countryside faced periodic harassment, threats, and violent attacks in reprisal for their news reporting as tensions between Bakiyev and the opposition escalated in early 2007. In February, unidentified individuals broke into the editorial office of the Bishkek-based opposition newspaper Kyrgyz Rukhu and set the premises on fire, according to local press reports. The newspaper had recently published several articles criticizing presidential aide Kurmanbek Temirbayev.

In October, an unidentified gunman in the southern city of Osh shot and killed Alisher Saipov, the 26-year-old editor of the independent Uzbek-language weekly Siyosat (Politics) and a stringer for the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and several other foreign news organizations. Prior to his murder, Saipov had received telephone threats, was followed by several men who appeared to be Uzbek security agents, and was smeared in the Uzbek state media in retaliation for his reporting on politically sensitive human rights abuses in Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz authorities opened a criminal investigation amid speculation that Uzbek agents were behind the slaying. (In Uzbekistan, state-controlled Internet service providers blocked access within their borders to articles describing Saipov’s murder.) In November, CPJ met with Zamira Sydykova, the Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, to urge a thorough and transparent investigation into Saipov’s slaying.

Even journalists with the more cautious Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (KTR) were targeted for reporting on politically sensitive issues. In March, KTR reporter Kairat Birimkulov sustained serious head injuries in an attack by two unidentified men outside Bishkek, according to local press reports. The assault occurred after the journalist reported on allegations of negligence and corrupt business practices against the director of the Bishkek railway company Kyrgyz Temir Zholu. In the weeks prior to the attack, Birimkulov had received telephone threats, and the railway company’s director, Nariman Tyuleyev, had filed a defamation lawsuit against the journalist. Birimkulov continued receiving telephone threats following the attack, prompting him to move to Switzerland in October, the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported.

On March 27, little more than a week after the attack on Birimkulov, four unidentified men abducted NTS news anchor Daniyar Isanov in Bishkek, drove him to the outskirts of the city, beat him unconscious, and shouted “this is for NTS,” according to CPJ research. Isanov found himself on the street after regaining consciousness the following morning; he was hospitalized with a broken nose and facial bruises.

During large opposition protests in mid-April, nearly 10,000 demonstrators marched daily to the presidential palace in Bishkek, calling for Bakiyev’s resignation. At least five local and foreign journalists were assaulted during the protests, but it was not always clear whether the attackers were opposition activists or pro-government provocateurs. Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibayev dismissed the attacks, stating that “our staff usually reach the conclusion that it was a coincidence, but journalists use it as PR to draw attention to themselves,” according to the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

On April 19, the ninth day of protests in the capital, police violently dispersed the crowd and mobilized prosecutors and KNB security officers to censor opposition media. The following morning, some 30 KNB officials raided an independent printing house in Bishkek and confiscated the print runs of four opposition newspapers—Agym, Kyrgyz Rukhu, Apta, and Aykyn—as well as the electronic files containing the editions of those newspapers, according to press reports. The raid, though directed by prosecutors, violated laws requiring a court order for the seizure of journalistic material, according to the country’s independent media ombudsman, Shamaral Maichiyev.

The harassment of NTS managers following the November 2006 protests and the crackdown on opposition newspapers in April 2007 reflected Bakiyev’s growing reliance on prosecutors, KNB security officers, and police to intimidate and silence critical news reporting. In May, Novy Kyrgyzstan newspaper editor Artyom Petrov was summoned to KNB headquarters in Bishkek to answer questions about his relationship with opposition party members, according to local press reports. In October, police officers in Bishkek confiscated 2,500 copies of the independent newspaper Alkak that contained an article criticizing a proposal by Bakiyev that would weaken the powers of the parliament. (The changes were approved by voters at a referendum. Bakiyev then dissolved parliament and called a December election, won by his party.)

Throughout the year, Bakiyev and parliamentary allies delayed or undermined various media reforms, including efforts to transform state broadcaster KTR into an independent public broadcast network. Bakiyev approved in March a long-delayed law to reform KTR—but then appointed a director by presidential decree, undermining the KTR supervisory board that was supposed to be responsible for such appointments, according to local press reports. In late March, parliament began debating a measure to decriminalize libel, but the proposal remained stalled at year’s end, RFE/RL reported.

The intense and sometimes confrontational political divide between Bakiyev and primary political opponent Felix Kulov—a former KNB colonel and prime minister—reinforced longstanding factionalism. As a result, independent and opposition journalists were increasingly stranded between Kulov’s allies, who represent the more Russified, prosperous north, and Bakiyev’s supporters, who represent the more religious, impoverished, ethnically Uzbek south.

Pyramid—the country’s first influential independent television station, known for its critical reporting of Bakiyev—was mired in lawsuits over ownership rights that left the station’s headquarters impounded and its bank accounts frozen for much of 2007, the local press reported. With advertising revenue scarce, some media owners sought to use their outlets to advance political interests instead, leaving frontline journalists vulnerable to pressure, according to an assessment conducted by the Washington-based media training organization IREX.

Authoritarian neighbors such as Uzbekistan, Russia, and China encouraged Bakiyev to abandon Western-style pro-democracy reforms. In August, Bishkek hosted a meeting of the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an alliance of repressive governments in Eurasia seeking to counterbalance the U.S. military presence in the region. Bakiyev forged closer ties with leaders from Tashkent, Moscow, and Beijing, while subtly distancing himself from democratic aspirations and ties with the United States and the European Union.