Central Asian states are no strangers to free-speech controversy, but the brutal murder of a journalist from Kyrgyzstan in neighboring Kazakhstan marks a new low in the region's media environment. The incident is stoking an international outcry and is pushing press freedom up the agenda during Kazakhstan's chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The circumstances surrounding the death of Kyrgyzstan-based journalist Gennadiy Pavlyuk in December remain shrouded in mystery, but some aspects appear certain -- someone with a grudge who felt a certain sense of impunity wished him serious harm. Pavlyuk was hurled to his death with his hands and legs bound from the sixth floor of an apartment block on a central Almaty thoroughfare, Furmanov Street. He was found unconscious on the overhang of an entranceway on December 16 and died six days later. Police found an empty laptop bag in the apartment, sparking speculation that incriminating material that could point to the murderer's identity was stolen.
Kazakh law-enforcement agencies are leading the investigation into the killing, working in collaboration with Kyrgyz police. But cooperation between the two has been hampered by a public spat that erupted after Kazakh media reported, citing anonymous sources, that Kyrgyz intelligence officers were suspected of involvement. Kazakh investigators have not confirmed the report, but they do suspect Kyrgyz citizens of the killing.
"We have said previously that the main suspects in the murder have been established. They are several citizens of the Kyrgyz Republic," Oleg Ivashchenko, deputy head of Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry press service, told EurasiaNet. Asked about the investigation's progress, he said details could not be made public until it ends.
Pavlyuk, who wrote under the pseudonym Ibragim Rustambek, had worked for the Kyrgyz editions of the Russian newspapers Argumenty i Fakty and Komsomolskaya Pravda and for the independent Kyrgyz outlet Beliy Parokhod, later renamed Beliy Parus. He was also associated with the opposition Ata Meken party and had announced plans to launch a media project with it.
His violent death sparked an international outcry, with the OSCE and the European Union joining media freedom organizations, including Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, in expressing concern.
"Anti-media violence reaches far beyond the persons attacked; it aims to impose censorship on the whole of the free press," the OSCE's representative on press freedom, Miklos Haraszti, wrote to Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kadyrbek Sarbayev in late December. "This is why fighting violent intimidation of the media is crucial for compliance with OSCE media freedom commitments."
Haraszti pointed to a week of violence against journalists in Kyrgyzstan: on the same day Pavlyuk was murdered, Russian BaltInfo news agency correspondent Aleksandr Yevgrafov was assaulted in Bishkek by two men in police uniform, and the previous day threatening notes and a bullet were sent to the offices of the Osh Shamy newspaper in southern Kyrgyzstan, whose deputy editor, Kubanychbek Dzholdoshev, was assaulted in November. Eight journalists were attacked in Kyrgyzstan in 2009, Reporters Without Borders said in December.
There have been 31 attacks on journalists since 2005, Kyrgyz Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiyev told a parliamentary committee on January 26, adding that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has taken personal control over investigations into such crimes.
Kongantiyev also surprised some observers by stating that -- in the government's view -- only one of these attacks was linked to the journalist's work. That was the savage murder of Kyrgyz journalist Alisher Saipov -- editor of the Siyosat newspaper, which was critical of the Uzbek authorities -- who was assassinated in Osh in 2007. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On December 9 the Kyrgyz Supreme Court rejected a bid to reopen the investigation into that case. A man named Abdufarit Rasulov has been charged with the murder amid suspicions that he is a scapegoat.
"Authorities clearly have no interest in completing the investigation and would rather close this sensitive case as soon as possible, especially as it would be diplomatically embarrassing if leads pointing to the Uzbek intelligence services were pursued," Reporters Without Borders said after the court ruling.
The string of attacks on journalists culminating in Pavlyuk's murder moved the US Embassy in Bishkek to publicly express concern in a statement issued December 24. "Journalists and free media are essential to a democratic and open society, and should be able to work without fear or intimidation," it said.
The EU weighed in with a statement on January 21, condemning "a climate of intimidation that seriously jeopardizes freedom of expression" in Kyrgyzstan. It also called on Kazakhstani authorities to investigate the crime "swiftly and thoroughly."
The plight of the independent Respublika newspaper graphically illustrates the problems. Since September 2009 it has been unable to find a printing house that will publish it, and staffers have been rolling off copies of the newspaper -- publishing it under the name Golos Respubliki -- on office equipment.
"All printing houses in our country refuse to print the newspaper. ? It is seen from this situation that some sort of order has been given from somewhere on high not to publish Respublika," deputy chief editor Oksana Makushina told EurasiaNet.
The emergence in the OSCE chair country of a practice reminiscent of Soviet-era samizdat -- a means of clandestinely publishing suppressed information to evade censorship -- has surprised some observers. "It is all aimed at the newspaper [Respublika] not going out ? to put it crudely, at closing our mouth," Makushina added.
Respublika's plight has not gone unnoticed by the OSCE. In September 2009, Haraszti condemned the seizure of its print run and the freezing of its accounts ahead of an appeal in a defamation case involving BTA Bank. "The level of intolerance toward the free flow of information and opinion is troubling," he said. The newspaper lost its appeal and has been ordered to pay damages of $400,000.
Now ensconced in the OSCE chair, Kazakhstan faces its first critical test in protecting media freedom by conducting a thorough and conclusive investigation into Pavlyuk's killing.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.