Attacks on the Press 2010: Kyrgyzstan

Top Developments
• Bakiyev censors news media in a failed attempt to hold power.
• Amid ethnic clashes, Uzbek journalists and outlets targeted for reprisals.

Key Statistic
2: Ethnic Uzbek journalists imprisoned as of December 1.

In a year of political revolt and deadly ethnic turmoil, successive presidential administrations cracked down on the press, using censorship, intimidation, and imprisonment. The ouster of the authoritarian Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April, followed in June by wrenching conflict between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents in the south, cut a deep divide in the nation and put its democratic future at risk. At least two journalists were confined when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1, illustrating unchanging repression despite changes in leadership.


Main Index
Europe and Central Asia
Regional Analysis:
On the Runet, Old-School
Repression Meets New

Country Summaries
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History certainly seemed to repeat itself in the spring as Bakiyev followed the same repressive course that fomented the 2005 Tulip Revolution and led to the ouster of Askar Akayev. As local media scrutinized the performance of the Bakiyev administration–which included corruption, the politicized arrests of opposition leaders, and rising energy bills–authorities moved to muzzle the press. The state media regulator, state prosecutors, financial police, and the country’s largest Internet service provider were mobilized to shut down critical news outlets and broadcasters.

The crackdown intensified in March after several independent news outlets, including the regional news websites Ferghana and Centrasia, and the Kyrgyz service of the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (also known as Radio Azattyk), covered anti-government protests in the provinces and reported at length on money-laundering allegations in Italy against Bakiyev’s financial consultant.

The main telecommunications provider, Kyrgyztelecom, blocked access to Ferghana and Centrasia, along with several other sites critical of Bakiyev. Soon after, authorities forced several private broadcasters to stop carrying Radio Azattyk programming. Financial police in Bishkek conducted a warrantless raid against the independent broadcaster Stan TV on trumped-up allegations that it was using pirated Microsoft software. Stan TV said the raid was in reprisal for its reporting on the political opposition and unrest in the country, Reuters reported. Print outlets also came under attack: A Bishkek court suspended three independent newspapers, Achyk Sayasat, Nazar, and Forum, after prosecutors alleged that the weeklies had called for revolt and insulted Bakiyev’s honor.

CPJ and others urged Bakiyev to halt the crackdown, which was reminiscent of events that preceded the 2005 overthrow of Akayev’s government. The calls went unheeded. Thousands of protesters marched to Bishkek on April 7, encountering deadly force from government troops that simply stoked their fury. As protesters ransacked and torched local businesses and government offices, Bakiyev, like Akayev in 2005, fled the capital. His government and parliament were disbanded, his house was burned, and he and his relatives were on the run.

An interim government headed by opposition leader Roza Otunbayeva was formed soon after, followed by a June plebiscite in which voters endorsed the interim government and approved a new constitution that created a parliamentary republic. Otunbayeva, who will hold the presidency until December 2011, promised democratic rule and respect for human rights and press freedom–much as Bakiyev did when he first took office.

Bakiyev’s flight in April–first to his native southern Kyrgyzstan and then Belarus–brought some initial relief to the news media. The new government restored access to online media and allowed broadcasters back on the air. But a revival of press freedom was short-lived. In June, ethnic conflict engulfed southern Kyrgyzstan, pitting Kyrgyz and Uzbek residents against each other. Journalists came under attack, targeted in part for their ethnic backgrounds.

Economic and political inequities had long caused ethnic tensions in the south, where majority Uzbeks dominate in business while ethnic Kyrgyz hold political power. In the spring, Uzbek-organized rallies against Bakiyev were perceived by Kyrgyz residents as calls for autonomy. When Otunbayeva, an ethnic Kyrgyz, later sought support from southern Uzbeks, it further disrupted the ethnic balance. The government was able to disperse small-scale inter-ethnic riots in May, but the seeds of greater unrest were sown.  

On June 10, violent clashes between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks started in the southern city of Osh and quickly engulfed all of southern Kyrgyzstan. An ethnically motivated brawl at a local casino triggered the violence, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, whose researchers witnessed and investigated the conflict. Word of atrocities committed by opposing groups in Osh further stirred conflict throughout the south. In less than a week, participants–in some instances, government forces acting on the side of ethnic Kyrgyz–burned to the ground scores of neighborhoods and businesses, killed hundreds, and uprooted up to half a million residents, Human Rights Watch said in its report. Ethnic Uzbeks bore a much heavier toll.

Instead of confronting the political and humanitarian crisis, authorities lashed out at local journalists and accused them of inciting violence. CPJ research shows that Uzbek media, which were targeted in the crackdown, had covered rallies by ethnic Uzbeks but had not orchestrated calls for violence. The morning after clashes erupted in Osh, the regional government ordered Osh TV and Mezon TV, independent stations with Uzbek owners, to cease their broadcasts. Both stations suffered heavy damage from unidentified vandals shortly after the orders, Ferghana reported. Mezon did not return to the air.

Osh TV partially resumed broadcasts in July only to have security agents raid the station without a warrant, confiscate its computers, and briefly detain its director, Khalil Khudoyberdyev, Ferghana reported. Khudoyberdyev soon sold the company under pressure to an ethnic Kyrgyz and fled the country, according to Ferghana and CPJ sources.

At least four reporters–all ethnic Uzbeks–were targeted for reprisal after covering the clashes, CPJ sources said. Two RFE/RL contributors in Osh faced threats that forced them to temporarily leave the region and stop working. The two had produced detailed eyewitness reports that were in sharp contrast to the government-approved reports carried in most domestic media.

Azimjon Askarov, director of the local rights group Vozdukh and contributor to the regional news site Voice of Freedom, and Ulugbek Abdusalomov, editor of the independent weekly Diydor, were arrested in June on charges of inciting ethnic unrest. Askarov was also charged with complicity in the murder of a police officer.

Askarov’s colleagues told CPJ he was prosecuted in retaliation for reporting on police abuse and beatings of detainees. Defense attorney Nurbek Toktakunov told CPJ that the prosecution failed to produce any evidence or independent eyewitness testimony at the trial. Askarov was beaten in custody, while his lawyer and relatives were threatened, but a Jalal-Abad court imposed a life prison term against the journalist in September.

The investigation of Abdusalomov was marred as well, CPJ research showed. The journalist was not present at the protests that authorities said he had allegedly led. Documents show that at the time the editor was in Bishkek, working on the text of the new constitution as a member of a government committee. The article in Diydor that officials alleged had incited ethnic hatred had simply quoted local residents who complained about inequities in southern Kyrgyzstan. The case was pending in late year.

Local and international human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ, urged Otunbayeva to intervene in the politicized prosecutions. Otunbayeva worked for years in Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Service, serving as an ambassador to the United States among other nations, and later headed the Foreign Ministry under both Akayev and Bakiyev.