Three years after a popular uprising inspired hope for reform, press conditions stagnated and, in many respects, deteriorated. A high-profile murder remained unsolved, with no evident progress in the investigation. Two editors faced criminal prosecution, and their newspapers were shuttered in the wake of a defamation case. President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signed into law a restrictive broadcast measure that reversed efforts to transform the state broadcaster Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (KTR) into an independent, publicly funded outlet. Conditions reverted in many ways to those that existed under former leader Askar Akayev, whose corrupt regime was brought down by the 2005 revolt known as the Tulip Revolution.
An investigation into the October 2007 murder of independent editor Alisher Saipov served to highlight the Bakiyev administration’s approach to protecting the press and enforcing the law. Saipov, 26, editor of the Uzbek-language newspaper Siyosat (Politics), was shot at close range outside his downtown office in the southern city of Osh. Despite high-level commitments to solve the case, authorities issued a series of confusing public comments that cast doubt on the integrity of the inquiry.
Immediately after the killing, a Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman, Bakyt Seyitov, told local reporters that investigators were considering Saipov’s journalism as a primary motive. In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in Washington, the Kyrgyz ambassador to the United States, Zamira Sydykova, offered assurances that the country was committed to a thorough and transparent investigation.
But the record does not reflect such an effort. Investigators, for example, have not disclosed the contents of a statement made to police by a political analyst who was with Saipov at the time of the killing, according to several CPJ sources. The analyst, Ikbol Mirsayitov, dropped from public view after giving the statement to police, and his whereabouts were unknown in late year.
No suspects had been identified by late year, although a key investigator provided news outlets with a photo of the two assailants in December 2007. The investigator was later reassigned. Publishing the image did not spur any movement on the case. Rather, officials tried to shelve the investigation at least twice during 2008.
Officials first suspended the investigation in January, without notifying the Saipov family. An official at the Ministry of Internal Affairs told the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that the investigation had been halted “because the two suspected individuals had not been captured.” A week later, newly appointed Internal Affairs Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev gave a different explanation–the preliminary investigation period had simply expired–and promised to restart the inquiry.
On March 31, investigators closed the case again because of an “inability to determine a person who could be charged with the crime,” according to a notice sent to the Saipov family by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The department shifted its stance on April 14, reopening the investigation without explanation. In November, Deputy Interior Minister Dmitry Fedorov told local journalists that investigators had ruled out Saipov’s work as a motive for the slaying. He did not elaborate.
Saipov’s colleagues told CPJ that Uzbek security agents may have been involved in the murder. Saipov, a Kyrgyz citizen of Uzbek ethnicity, had aggressively covered Uzbekistan’s political scene. A month before his slaying, state-controlled Uzbek media had smeared Saipov in publications and broadcasts, and the journalist reported being followed by Uzbek security agents. Kyrgyz officials, long embroiled in land and energy disputes with neighboring Uzbekistan, showed no evident sign they were pursuing an Uzbek lead or seeking cooperation from Tashkent.
Kyrgyz authorities were systematic in prosecuting two Bishkek-based independent weeklies, De-Facto and Alibi. Cholpon Orozobekova, founder and editor-in-chief of De-Facto, and Babyrbek Dzheyenbekov, editor of Alibi, published articles in early year suggesting that Bakiyev’s nephew, Asylbek Saliyev, may have had a role in a fatal car accident. Saliyev denied the assertions and filed civil complaints against the two papers in March, demanding monetary damages. On June 2, a district court in Bishkek ruled in favor of Saliyev and ordered De-Facto and Alibi to pay Saliyev one million soms (US$27,680) apiece, according to the regional news Web site Ferghana.
Unable to meet the deadline for payment and seeing its appeal rejected, Alibi was forced to close in August. The next month, Bishkek prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against Dzheyenbekov for failing to pay damages, a charge that could carry up to two years in prison, local press freedom advocate Ilim Karypbekov told CPJ.
De-Facto was short-lived as well. Two weeks after the verdict, Bishkek police raided the De-Facto office, seized its computers and financial documents, and sealed the newsroom. The raid, which effectively shuttered the paper, took place after De-Facto published a letter from a Bishkek resident alleging widespread government corruption and naming a number of officials, according to local press reports. Orozobekova told CPJ that the prosecutor general’s office opened a criminal case against De-Facto on charges of “distribution of knowingly false denunciation.” A month later, the same district court that had ruled in favor of Saliyev ordered De-Facto to pay two million soms (US$55,360) in damages to two officials who said the letter had damaged their reputations. Orozobekova told CPJ that she had not been informed of the lawsuit or notified of the court date, and had learned of the verdict from press reports.
In July, authorities filed the same “false denunciation” charge directly against Orozobekova. Facing up to five years in prison if convicted, Orozobekova fled Kyrgyzstan in the fall, sources told CPJ.
A years-long effort to reform the state broadcaster KTR was derailed when Bakiyev signed a broadcast law in June. The measure gave Bakiyev broad authority over KTR policy-making by allowing him to appoint KTR’s general director and all members of its supervisory board. KTR’s 15-member board had previously been appointed in equal parts by the president, parliament, and civil groups; the board, in turn, named the company’s director-general.
Local press groups said the broadcast law also undermined the sustainability of private broadcasters and gave state agencies greater authority to revoke licenses. The legislation required that half of all programming carried by private television and radio stations be self-produced and in the Kyrgyz language. Most private stations typically broadcast considerable content produced by other sources and in other languages. Because of their small staffs and budgets, some broadcast companies may be forced to shut, analysts said.
Under the new law, the National Communications Agency and the Ministry of Culture and Information were given power to revoke broadcast licenses for regulatory violations. Those agencies had needed court approval under the previous law.
By year’s end, KTR stopped carrying programming from RFE/RL. In December, KTR chief Melis Eshimkanov said that the U.S.-government funded broadcaster was “too negative and too critical” of Kyrgyz authorities. RFE/RL said it would return to shortwave broadcasts in Kyrgyzstan for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. KTR pulled BBC programming off the air as well, but allowed it to resume after a week of negotiations.
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