Media owners prosecuted, forced out of Kyrgyzstan

New York, May 13, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Kyrgyz authorities today to drop trumped-up criminal charges against the founder and director of the largest regional television channel, Osh TV, and the founder, owner, and director of three now-defunct media outlets–the independent broadcaster Mezon TV, and newspapers Itogi Nedeli and Portfel.

Osh TV’s Khalil Khudaiberdiyev told CPJ that he and Mezon TV’s Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev were being charged with separate counts of organizing and participating in mass disorder; calls for separatism; incitement to interethnic and religious hatred; abuse of office; and the illegal creation of an armed group. Both Khudaiberdiyev and Mirzakhodzhayev deny the charges.

According to the independent regional news website Ferghana News, prosecutors in Jalal-Abad, southern Kyrgyzstan, announced in late April they had finished an investigation into a number of alleged crimes reportedly committed by several ethnic Uzbeks, including Khudaiberdiyev and Mirzakhodzhayev, and said they had sent the case to the Jalal-Abad City Court. The court was scheduled to hear the case on Wednesday, but it is unclear whether the hearing took place, Khudaiberdiyev told CPJ.

According to Khudaiberdiyev, the case against him and Mirzakhodzhayev stems from their stations’ coverage of a May 2010 rally in Jalal-Abad. Demonstrators had gathered to oppose the return to power of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Regional authorities blamed the coverage for igniting violence.

“We call on Kyrgyz authorities to drop all charges against Khalil Khudaiberdiyev and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev and allow them to return to Kyrgyzstan and resume their activities as publishers,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “President Otunbayeva must make good on her pledges to support press freedom and ensure that journalists are not prosecuted in retaliation for their work.”

Khudaiberdiyev and Mirzakhodzhayev are being prosecuted in absentia; they learned of the criminal case against them from the press, Khudaiberdiyev said. Speaking to journalists in April, Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva said no journalist have been prosecuted in Kyrgyzstan or fled the country since she came to power in April 2010. “Press freedom is our republic’s asset,” Otunbayeva told journalists.

In an open letter on Wednesday, Khudaiberdiyev called the charges against him fabricated, and asked Otunbayeva “not to allow his illegal prosecution.”

Mirzakhodzhayev’s outlets folded as a result of the June 2010 interethnic clashes in southern Kyrgyzstan. The media owner left the country for safety concerns. Khudaiberdiyev told CPJ that he was forced to sell Osh TV in July and leave the country after he was interrogated by local security services and received threats from a local mayor. After changing owners, Osh TV modified its editorial policy and no longer criticizes regional authorities; it also stopped producing and broadcasting Uzbek-language programming, according to CPJ sources in Osh.