New York, June 17, 2008–Police in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek raided the newsroom of independent newspaper De-Facto on June 14, taking all its financial records, confiscating computers, and sealing the newsroom, the independent regional news Web site Ferghana reported. The paper was shut down after it published a letter to Kyrgyzstan’s president and other public officials that alleged official corruption.
The raid took place after the prosecutor general’s office opened a criminal investigation into the paper’s publication of a letter that they say was “distribution of knowingly false denunciation,” Cholpon Orozobekova, De-Facto founder and editor-in-chief, told CPJ. Orozobekova has not yet been charged, but is considered a witness in a criminal case, defense lawyer Nina Zotova told CPJ. De-Facto publishes twice a week. The charge would carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
According to Ferghana, De-Facto published a letter last week by Bishkek resident Zamira Moldoyeva addressed to Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov, and Bishkek Mayor Daniyar Usenov, in which Moldoyeva accused two high state officials of bribery and corruption. The next day, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the publication of what they said were “false” accusations and obtained a search warrant, Orozobekova told CPJ.
“We denounce the shutdown of De-Facto for alleged libel and call on Kyrgyz authorities to return all seized computers and documents to the newspaper, and allow it to continue publishing,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “Criminalizing journalism and commentary results in self-censorship among journalists.”
Orozobekova told CPJ the newsroom is currently paralyzed. She was questioned at length by police about the author of the letter, whom Orozobekova said she did not know. “They never explained why they took our computers and said they will not close the investigation even if we publish a refutation,” Orozobekova told CPJ.
Zotova said the search warrant only authorized the seizure of financial documents.
According to independent news agency Aki-Press, Bishkek prosecutors opened an investigation on June 13 after they received a request from Taalaibek Dalbayev, head of Bishkek city fiscal agency, who claimed De-Facto published false information about him and his agency in the letter. Prosecutors claim that this preliminary investigation did not prove the allegations of corruption and believe Orozobekova was responsible for its publication, Aki-Press reported Monday.
This is the second defamation charge brought against De-Facto in the last six months. On June 2, the Pervomaisky District Court in Bishkek ruled that the newspaper insulted President Bakiyev’s nephew–Asylbek Saliyev–in an earlier article that suggested Saliyev had caused a fatal car accident. The court ruled against De-Facto and fined it 1 million som (US$27,680). De-Facto is appealing the ruling.
CPJ is a New York-based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information visit www.cpj.org.