Kyrgyzstan no ‘island of democracy’ as it censors the press

Kyrgyzstan is an “island of democracy” where authorities guarantee freedom of speech and reporting on protest rallies is not a crime, Kyrgyz government officials told an audience. They were speaking at a May 26 round-table discussion at the Open Society Institute in New York. CPJ vehemently disagreed. We had reported on the ongoing prosecution of media owners in the country and how a regional reporter had been recently sentenced to life in prison.

At the OSI, Kyrgyz officials discussed a recent report by the Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission, which implicated Kyrgyz military in complicity to the June 2010 violent ethnic conflict that deeply scarred their nation. A year ago this week, hundreds of civilians were killed, hundreds of thousands got displaced, and scores of neighborhoods and businesses were burned to the ground in southern Kyrgyzstan.

The officials, including Member of Parliament Ravshanbek Sabirov and presidential administration representatives Mira Karybayeva and Erkinbek Mamyrov, acknowledged that authorities were unable to foresee and stop the violence, and said the government was thoroughly studying the commission’s recommendations.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t help but praise the country with a familiar phrase, “island of democracy.” Their nation is a standout in an otherwise authoritarian Central Asian region, they said. Sabirov and Karybayeva, who is in charge of the ethnic and religious policies at the presidential administration, praised their country for guaranteeing freedom of speech and providing equal rights to ethnic minorities. Mamyrov, head of the administration’s legal department, assured the audience that authorities were investigating all the reported incidents of detainees’ torture.

But what about the fabricated charges of extremism leveled against two media directors, Khalil Khudaiberdiyev of Osh TV and Dzhavlon Mirzakhodzhayev of Mezon TV? When the conflict erupted last June, regional authorities ordered Osh TV and Mezon TV to cease broadcasting, harassed Khudaiberdiyev and Mirzakhodzhayev, and charged both men with extremism, the directors told CPJ. Khudaiberdiyev and Mirzakhodzhayev deny the charges and told CPJ that their only crime was covering a protest rally in southern Kyrgyzstan. At the rally, an Uzbek minority leader called on the public to abstain from violence and urged them to be more active in political life of the country. Both media owners fled Kyrgyzstan last summer in fear. Their respective broadcasters never resumed programming in the Uzbek language, which is in a large demand in southern Kyrgyzstan, an area populated by Uzbeks. Khudaiberdiyev was forced to sell Osh TV, and Mirzakhodzhayev’s outlet has been defunct since July.

When asked about the broadcasters at the OSI event, presidential administrator Karybayeva insisted that journalists are free to report on political events, including the protest rallies. She added though that by fleeing the country, the media directors had indirectly acknowledged their guilt. And they had aired the reports during the turbulent period, which is not legal, Karybayeva said, contradicting her earlier claim that the Kyrgyz press is free.

And what about the reported torture of journalist Azimjon Askarov, who is now imprisoned for life? Prior to his arrest, Askarov contributed to a number of independent regional news outlets and exposed human rights violations, including detainees’ torture by the regional police. Askarov also was a head of a human rights organization called Vozdukh (Air). Local and international human rights and press freedom groups believe that he was imprisoned in retaliation for his work.

During the conflict, Askarov interviewed victims of the conflict and photographed the intentionally burnt homes of ethnic Uzbeks. He also reportedly captured on camera violent incidents involving the police and military in his native Bazar-Korgon village. After his arrest, authorities raided Askarov’s home and confiscated all his reporting equipment.

At OSI, Mamyrov said that authorities have been investigating the reported cases of detainees’ torture by police. But no such probe had been opened into the repeated beatings in detention of Azimjon Askarov. And Askarov denied that he was tortured when prosecutors inquired about it last fall, Mamyrov claimed.

Of course, Askarov denied the torture facing repeated beatings at a pre-trial facility. But Askarov gave a lengthy interview to the regional news website Fergana News, and described his ordeal in detail.

Human rights advocates, including representatives of the New York-based Human Rights Watch and OSI’s Justice Initiative, were startled when Mamyrov declared that the courts had found Askarov guilty of aiding a policeman’s killing. According to Mamyrov, Askarov’s trial was smooth and fair–there were no procedural violations or conflicts of interest. CPJ research, of course, shows just the opposite. Askarov was beaten in custody and prosecuted by the same regional law enforcement agents whom he had covered for years, exposing how they fabricated criminal cases against innocent civilians and tortured the detainees.

If this event was any indication, the so-called “island of democracy” will soon sink into the stagnant waters of authoritarianism, unless the authorities reinforce one of democracy’s main pillars, press freedom.