Recent developments in Kyrgyzstan are displaying the dark side of a free press.
Since Kyrgyzstan embarked on its experiment in parliamentary-style democracy in 2010, a few journalists have made commendable efforts to fulfill the traditional watchdog function of a free press. But such bright spots are being marred by a rise in chauvinistic and racist rhetoric in the Kyrgyz-language press, along with recent violent attacks against journalists.
Addressing journalists at a May 3 celebration of World Press Freedom Day, President Roza Otunbayeva praised her government’s media record: “Freedom of the press is the main achievement of the republic. No journalist has been forced to flee the country, no one has been put to the administrative grindstone, and no one has been attacked,” Otunbayeva said, referring to the period following the collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration in April of 2010.
After assuming power, the new government lifted most Bakiyev-era controls on broadcast and print media outlets, launched investigations into prior abuses, and pledged to introduce public control over the main government radio and television broadcasting company. Last month, moreover, parliament approved a resolution that de-criminalized defamation and libel. Although the measure abolished jail terms for those found guilty of libel, it did allow for a steep increase in fines against journalists in civil actions.
Despite such improvements, observers say there are many reasons to remain concerned about Kyrgyzstan’s media environment. For one, journalists are “afraid to write on political issues and often employ self-censorship,” Аlmas Ysman Kalet, an Osh-based freelance journalist, told EurasiaNet.org. Self-censorship became an acute issue after southern Kyrgyzstan was consumed by violent ethnic clashes in June 2010, Kalet said. Hundreds of people, mostly Uzbeks, died in the violence.
In recent weeks, many Kyrgyz-language news outlets have explored the extreme limits of editorial freedom, publishing articles expressing chauvinistic and xenophobic views. In one instance of hate-speech, a May 11 commentary published by the Kyrgyz-language newspaper El Sozy -- translated into Russian by the gezitter.org website -- blamed Jews for most of the country’s current problems.
“Freedom of expression has revealed the other side of the coin; it turned out that journalists are lacking responsibility and professional ethics. Due to increased competition for scandalous materials, journalists are publishing unverified facts. Media outlets are teeming with anti-Semitic views, especially the Kyrgyz-language ones,” said Dinara Oshurahunova, the director of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, in comments carried by the 24.kg news agency on May 3.
“The media can serve evil purposes,” Edil Baisalov, a Kyrgyz civil society activist and Otunbayeva’s former chief of staff, told EurasiaNet.org. “There are many examples when newspapers are exacerbating existing political tensions and casting ethnic minorities as enemies.”
Some of the Kyrgyz-language newspapers containing chauvinistic and xenophobic content are being printed at a publishing house operated by the Media Support Center Foundation (MSCF). The MSCF is a commercial entity that was founded in 2003. Initial funding for the MSCF came from the US State Department. According to the foundation’s website, the MSCF’s Supervisory Committee is headed by Martin Callanan, a member of the European Parliament.
On April 29, the Prosecutor General’s office warned media outlets to stop publishing material that incites inter-ethnic animosity. But the hate-filled articles continue to appear. Many observers suspect that much of the controversial coverage is being encouraged and funded by politicians with an eye on this fall’s presidential election.
Economics may be a big part of the problem. The prolonged bout of political instability that began with Bakiyev’s ouster took a toll on many media outlets, causing a precipitous drop in ad revenue. Media outlets in southern Kyrgyzstan were especially hard hit, with most experiencing approximately a 50-percent loss in income. As they struggle to recover, newspapers are especially vulnerable to deep-pocketed politicians and wealthy entrepreneurs, who can offer financial relief in return for desired coverage.
“It is no secret that these days most media outlets represent the interests of powerful politicians. I doubt that journalists will be neutral [during the election campaign]. They will defend the interests of politicians who pay them,” said an Osh journalist speaking on condition of anonymity.
Beyond the profusion of hate-speech and calumny in the press, several suspicious attacks against journalists have occurred in recent weeks. For instance, On May 1, Jyldyz Bekbaeva, a correspondent for Russia’s Interfax news agency, was assaulted in Osh. She is convinced she was not the victim of a random criminal act, but was intentionally targeted because of her professional activities.
Meanwhile, many ethnic Uzbek media representatives in Kyrgyzstan are disgruntled, including Khaliljan Khudaiberdiev, the former owner of Osh-TV who is facing charges of inciting interethnic hostility in connection with last June’s violence. In the wake of the rioting, authorities in Osh shut down Osh-TV and other Uzbek-language outlets. These days, Osh TV is broadcasting again, but mostly in Kyrgyz. Khudaiberdiev maintains that authorities illegally seized the station from him.
In addition, efforts to introduce public control over state media, as promised by Otunbayeva’s provisional government immediately after Bakiyev’s ouster, are encountering resistance from well-connected politicians, Elvira Sarieva, a Bishkek-based journalist and member of the board of the new public broadcaster, OTRK (Obshestvennaya Teleradiokompania), told EurasiaNet.org.
Alisher Khamidov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.