Days after Kyrgyz authorities closed two more independent media outlets, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly rebuked President Kurmanbek Bakiyev's human rights record. During Ban's short visit to Bishkek, demonstrators clashed with police outside the UN office and later in front of parliament, demanding the government stop harassing the press. "For the UN, the protection of human rights is a bedrock principle. Quite frankly, recent events have been troubling, including those of the past few days," Ban told a press conference in Bishkek shortly after meeting Bakiyev on April 3.
"As I told the president, all human rights must be protected. That includes free speech and freedom of the media."
A growing number of outlets have been closed or blocked in Kyrgyzstan since March 10, when several websites reported on alleged business connections between financier Eugene Gourevitch, an American citizen based in Kyrgyzstan who is wanted in Italy for fraud, and the Central Agency for Development, Investment, and Innovation, headed by President Bakiyev's son, Maxim Bakiyev. [For Background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
One UN official expressed relief that Ban addressed the deteriorating media situation, which is sparking a surge in self-censorship. "I believe the secretary-general made the strongest comments on human rights in Kyrgyzstan that he was able to do," she told EurasiaNet.org.
On April 1, financial police raided the independent web outlet, Stan.tv, seized computers and sealed the building, alleging the company was using pirated software.
Authorities also suspended the opposition newspaper Forum on March 31 for publishing "appeals to forcibly overthrow the constitutional order."
"We were closed, because we told the truth," Jyldyz Musabekova, a journalist at Forum, told EurasiaNet.org.
Kirill Stepanyuk, chief editor of stan.tv, said he joined the protest in front of Bishkek's UN headquarters on April 2 to inform Ban of the deteriorating situation. Ban's deputies told him that the secretary-general "criticized the freedom of speech and human rights situation in Kyrgyzstan during a closed lunch with Bakiyev," Stepanyuk told EurasiaNet.org. "I hope that all the international organizations, human rights organizations and people who don't agree with the existing power will help to stop this onslaught and we will be able to work as we used to do, showing things objectively."
Authorities suspended two Kyrgyz-language newspapers on March 18 for allegedly insulting the president's honor. Moreover, authorities have blocked independent websites and forced the Kyrgyz-language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Azattyk, off air.
"Media independence, tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity and a robust civil society are all fundamental to modernization," Ban said at the press conference, standing beside Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. "They are essential to creating growth, prosperity and opportunity."
Human rights activists appear pleased with Ban's statements during his brief visit, cautiously optimistic the international opprobrium will help foster change. "The fact that Ban Ki-Moon addressed questions about the absence of independent media and the situation on freedom of speech to the government and president means a lot," said Gulnara Djurabaeva, program coordinator at the Interbilim Center, a civil society watchdog in Bishkek. "I think his visit to our country changed the situation a little bit because on Saturday when we were protesting, the police didn't detain us."
Ban is on his first tour of the region. [For Background, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In Tashkent on Monday, he also delivered a cautious, but firm call for Uzbekistan to live up to its human rights commitments. Speaking to students at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, the comments were a rare display of public criticism within the country.
After Tashkent, the secretary-general is scheduled to meet with Tajik President Imomali Rahmon in Dushanbe. He will end his regional tour in Kazakhstan.
David Trilling is the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet.