public service broadcasting in central asia
Of Public service Broadcasting in Kyrgyzstan
Media in Kyrgyzstan
Several years ago, optimistic Western commentators labeled Kyrgyzstan an “island of democracy” within a region of repression. No longer. Kyrgyzstan has begun losing its reputation as the “freest” of Central Asian states, and has increasingly come to resemble its repressive neighbors.
The heavy-handed leadership of President Askar Akaev has increasingly prevented the independent media from reporting critically on developments in the country without facing harsh reprisals, usually in the form of libel suits. (1)
On World Press Freedom Day, Kyrgyzstan received the doubtful distinction of being named among the world’s worst places to be a journalist. Kyrgyzstan joined 10 areas where The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said dangers and restrictions represent the full range of current threats to press freedom. (2)
Emboldened by the growing number of U.S. troops in Kyrgyzstan, CPJ said that President Akayev has used the threat of international terrorism as an excuse to curb political dissent and to suppress the independent and opposition media. Compliant courts often issue exorbitant damage awards in politically motivated libel suits, driving the country's most prominent newspapers to the brink of bankruptcy. The state publishing house refused to print several newspapers that criticized Akayev. Meanwhile, officials found legal excuses to cancel the licenses of several independent papers. (3)
Threats against the press got worse in 2001,as the Akayev regime continued to harden its position, applying greater pressure on the media. The post office regularly blocked the distribution of opposition newspapers. Legal action for slander became more frequent with fines apparently aimed at closing down the sued newspaper. In 2001, this fiscal, financial and legal harassment led to the end of the opposition weekly, Asaba, under pressure for several years. The weekly, Res Publica, and independent television network, Osh-TV, were also under constant pressure. (4)
The willingness of public officials to sue critical journalists has created a climate of self-censorship in Kyrgyzstan. Many journalists do not report on topics they know will upset the powerful elite. In addition, laws are written in such a way that truth is not a defense. It is enough that the "honor and dignity" of an individual has been violated for a court case to be initiated, irrespective of whether the journalist has reported facts or voiced an opinion. One example is Article 129 of the criminal code which states, "Insult, either verbal, written or physical" is punishable by a fine or up to six months corrective labor or public reprimand. (5)
U.S. diplomatic representative Douglas A. Davidson stated his concern about several human rights and mass media issues in Kyrgyzstan. He singled out Decree #20, saying it created "an atmosphere of repression" concerning media and required re-registration of religious groups. “The United States supports OSCE's aspiration to the interaction with the Kyrgyz Republic on issues of human rights and freedom of expression, because we consider that these rights and freedom show the best guarantees against extremism and intolerance,” he said. (6)
On May 16, 2002, Human Rights Watch, the organization for human rights protection, sent a letter to President Akayev , expressing anxiety and concern about the arrests of Protestants. The letter stated that arrests coincided with the deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, resulting from the issuing of a degree by the Kyrgyz government, limiting free expression and freedom of the media. (7)
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Center in Bishkek has continued monitoring cases of restriction of media freedom in Kyrgyzstan, voicing its concerns to authorities. It has also provided direct support and assistance to selected media outlets. In cooperation with Internews, the center has also organized training events on media law and ethics for journalists and judges. (8)
The Kyrgyz media is regulated by the Kyrgyz Constitution (1993), the Law on Mass Media (1992), the Law on the Protection of State Secrets (1994), the Law on the Protection of the Professional Activity of Journalists (1997), the Law on the Obligatory Copies of Documents (1997), the Law on Electric and Postal Communications (1998) and the Law on Advertising (1998). (9)
Freedom of expression is technically guaranteed by the 1993 Constitution, which states that “culture, art, literature, science, and the mass media shall be free.” The 1992 Law on Mass Media also states that “censorship is prohibited.” The law provides for freedom of speech and of the press, however, the government often restricts these rights. A 1998 referendum amended the Constitution to insert language that precludes Parliament from passing laws that infringe on free speech; however, there has been no implementing legislation for this amendment. (10)
The law on the mass media prohibits the dissemination of government and commercial secrets; material advocating war, violence, or intolerance toward ethnic or religious groups; desecration of national norms, ethics, and symbols, such as the national seal, flag, or anthem; pornography; and encroachment on the honor and dignity of a person (libel). Libel is a criminal, not a civil, action. The government, acting through compliant courts, used the prohibition of material that encroaches on the honor and dignity of a person to harass and apply pressure on the independent media. (11)
All media must register with the Ministry of Justice and wait for its approval before beginning to operate. The media law states that the registration process should require one month. In April 2001 citing an excess of outdated registrations, the Ministry of Justice required all media outlets throughout the country to re-register. By October 2001, 65 media outlets had successfully re-registered. In June, however, citing a previously unknown April decree, the Ministry cancelled the registration of 16 new media outlets that had been approved after April, including two opened by editors of newspapers that previously had closed under government pressure. The outlets were forced to reapply for registration; and all were registered successfully by November 1. (12)
Decree No. 20, released on January 14, 2001, introduced mandatory inventory and registration by the government of all typographical and printing equipment and imposed stricter governmental controls on all equipment imports. Journalists, media professionals and representatives of non-governmental organizations have all expressed concern that the new decree will seriously limit freedom of expression in the country. (13)
A new presidential decree made it easier to imprison journalists who criticize the government. Both state and private media are subject to government pressure, which inspires censorship. Journalists who criticize the government may be prosecuted under the criminal code’s restriction on libel. The independent newspaper Res Publica was shut down by a court for several weeks, until it paid two fines for losing a libel suit stemming from an article accusing the head of state television and radio of corruption. (14)
Eighty-one media outlets have been re-registered in Kyrgyzstan as of November 2001. The majority of print media are state publications, including the three most popular national papers: Kyrgyz Tuusu and Erkin Too, both Kyrgyz-language papers, and the Russian language Slovo Kyrgyzstana.
The U.S. Department of State Report said that “state television, radio, and government newspapers continued to receive government subsidies, which permitted the Government to influence media coverage and to apply financial pressure on independent media by fostering unfair competition for increasingly scarce advertising revenue. Some news outlets were owned and controlled partly or fully by individuals with close ties to the Government”. (15)
The government privatized almost all kiosks and newstands in the early 1990’s, but newsagents still receive their publications for sale from government-owned distributors. In 1998, the government sold its shares in the largest publishing house, but continued to control another smaller printing house. The businessmen, who now own the main publishing center, are also reported to have close ties to President Akaev.
There are approximately 25 to 30 newspapers and magazines with varying degrees of independence, including some that have only local circulation. The state printing house, Uchkun, is the primary newspaper publisher in the country, with several small presses located inside and outside the capital. (16) Among them there are Asaba, Delo Nomer, Vecherny Bishkek, and Res Publika.
The opposition Kyrgyz-language newspaper Asaba continued to be subjected to the pressure and intimidation that began shortly after the newspaper's owner declared his candidacy to run in the presidential election in 2000. In addition to having been subject to two honor and dignity suits, it encountered tax problems. In March 2001, a debt case, initiated in 2000, resulted in a ruling in favor of the creditor, and the government began confiscating Asaba's assets. In April 2001, the newspaper closed, reopening in October under new management with ties to the government. Many of the original staff left to join Res Publica. (17)
In October 2001, former Asaba owner Eshimkanov announced that a newly registered opposition paper would be published in November 2002, with 10,000 copies. The paper, Agym, was registered that month, along with two other new publications, Techeniye and Joltiken, both set to publish in early 2002. (18)
The weekly Delo Nomer focuses on criminal cases where, in its opinion, innocent people are taken to court. The editors maintain that their paper “defends the poor who cannot afford to pay (and thus get themselves out of trouble).” The paper does not print advertisements and has no sponsors. In order to remain financially viable, owners must sell Delo Nomer at 3.70 KGS, making it the most expensive paper in the country. (19)
On March 7, 2001 the National Security Service said it would drop charges against newspaper Delo No, which had been accused of divulging state secrets on November 29, 2000. The charges stem from the newspaper’s coverage of the trial of former vice president Feliks Kulov, who was charged with abuse of power while in office. This case, however, appears to be an exception rather than the rule. (20)
In March 2001, after a year of government harassment, several editors and journalists left Vecherny Bishkek to start a new newspaper. After a delay of six months, the new newspaper was registered in September. On June 21, 2001, the state publishing house, Uchkun, was enjoined by the Minister of the Interior to stop publishing 16 recently registered newspapers, including Moja Stolitsa, where journalists from the former newspaper Vecherny Bishkek worked, and Agym, Tesheniye and Joltiken, where journalists of the former newspaper Asaba had joined the staff. The Minister of Justice nullified the registration of these papers because of a decision on April 5, 2001, apparently designed to prevent teams from newspapers that had already been closed, from participating in new publications. (21)
Chief editor of the Moya Stolitsa-Novosti daily, Alexander Kim, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the Bishkek City Arbitration Court initially ruled that the state-run Uchkun publishing house had to print the newspaper, but then rescinded its own decision, and set a trial date. Uchkun President Kanybek Imanaliev announced that it would resume printing the paper, if the paper dropped the lawsuit against the publishing house. When Imanaliev sued the paper in February, accusing it of insulting him, a district court sentenced the paper to pay a fine. (22)
Res Publika, which in recent years has been subject to the previously described pressures, was founded in 1992 by four journalists who hoped to provide an outlet for opinions that could not be channeled through other newspapers. Now it is considered an opposition newspaper. (23)
On February 21, 2002 a court ordered the shutdown of Res Publika, and authorities froze the bank account of the weekly newspaper. Officials said the action was taken in response to Res Publika’s failure to pay a fine from the Pervomaysk Court in Bishkek, after it was convicted of defaming Amanbek Karypkulov, president of the state-owned National TV and Radio Company. The newspaper paid the fine and reopened. (24)
Kyrgyz media laws stipulate that the Ministry of Justice, the National Agency for Communications (NAC), and the presidential office must approve all broadcast licenses. In 1998, the administration gave the NAC greater authority to shut down media outlets and terminate the production of specific programs. Media analysts and Kyrgyz law experts consider this decree unconstitutional. By law, the courts are the only ones that can order the closure of a media outlet in Kyrgyzstan. (25)
There are also several independent television and radio broadcasting outlets. The most popular broadcast media outlets in the country include NBT, the Kyrgyz Public Educational Radio and TV (KOORT), which broadcasts programs from the Russian state channels ORT and RTR, and VOSST. (26)
There are two television stations in Osh that broadcast in Uzbek. Osh Television broadcasts in Uzbek for part of its schedule, but has been criticized by the government for airing too much Uzbek language programming. Mezon Television, founded by the Mezon Uzbek Ethnic Center to serve the needs of the large Uzbek population in Osh, broadcasts entirely in Uzbek. (27)
In March 2001, Internews-Kyrgyzstan reported that the southern branch of the NAC ordered the regional independent television station, Osh TV, to stop broadcasting. One of the first independent television stations in Central Asia, Osh TV had been in a lengthy conflict with the government over its broadcasting license and its VHF frequency. (28)
In 2000, the Kyrgyz Republic had 10,000 Internet users. (29) While it is possible to access the Internet in most major cities such as Bishkek, it is far more difficult in rural areas due to the absence of the necessary infrastructure such as stable phone lines. (30)
Information centers with free access to the Internet were opened in five cities: Balykchy, Jalal-Abad, Kant, Tokmok and Toktogul, joining existing in centers in seven cities Internet centers, all supported by grants from the U.S. State Department. (31)
Many Kyrgyz citizens simply cannot afford to access the Internet. In September 2001, the national telecom company imposed a massive cost increase through the implementation of a new “modem tax.” Internet service providers are now required to pay an increased fee in order to provide access to their customers. It is expected that the providers will pass on the costs of the new tax to their subscribers, further limiting an already weak Internet industry in the country. (32)
Although the government has not placed specific restrictions on Internet access nor restricted online content, this modem tax casts doubt on the country’s commitment to promoting Internet use among its population.
“2001 World Press Freedom Review”. Available URL:www.freemedia.at/wpfr/kyrgyzstan.htm