The presidential election campaign is in full swing in Kyrgyzstan. That means the state television channel, the Central Asian nation’s most popular source for news, is turning into a battleground.
Following the Spring 2010 tumult that resulted in the collapse of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s administration, Kyrgyzstan’s new leadership took steps to revamp the Obschestvennaya Tele-Radio Kompaniya (OTRK), aiming to turn it into a publicly run institution free of politically motivated meddling. The changes drew praise from media analysts. But with the high-stakes election due to be held in late October, observers worry that political pressures on the state television channel, as well as lingering structural problems, may upend the experiment in public broadcasting.
Already, lawmakers have stirred controversy by mandating a controversial ban on all live foreign news broadcasts during the presidential campaign. The move damaged hopes that a liberalized media environment would remain in place during the campaign. Lawmakers have said the ban aims to reduce Russia’s ability to sway voters through the manipulation of Kremlin-controlled media outlets.
So far, OTRK’s experience has represented a partial success story in Kyrgyzstan’s efforts to break with its trouble past and establish a stable parliamentary system of government. But gray areas created by legislative haste have left plenty of room for contention.
Shortly after Bakiyev’s ouster, an interim government decree allowed for the creation of a supervisory board staffed by media experts. Board members subsequently drew up operating guidelines and elected a director-general answerable to the board, rather than the country’s president. But the hastily framed decree failed to afford the broadcaster genuine protection from officials intent on influencing coverage, says board member Begaim Usenova.
“When we were working on the terms of the decree [with the interim government] we had to act quickly to take advantage of … elements of the interim government who supported reform,” recalled Usenova, who also heads Bishkek’s non-profit Institute of Media Policy. “As time passed we realized that there were aspects of the decree that needed improving in order to protect [state television] from external interference, but there wasn’t time,” she told EurasiaNet.org.
Members of Parliament have provided the biggest challenge to state television’s efforts to cement its independence. On June 9 this year, parliament passed a law enabling it to dissolve the board Usenova calls “as independent as realistically imaginable,” and replace it with representatives chosen by the legislature.
“Part of the problem is that … broadcasting reform in Kyrgyzstan wasn’t accompanied by parallel reforms in other sectors – judicial, law-enforcement,” said Usenova. “Government officials themselves have remained the same. We complain and they stop [interfering]. Then in a few weeks it starts up again.”
Mariya Rasner, country director for Internews Kyrgyzstan, a Washington-funded media development organization, has monitored the public-broadcasting experiment from the get-go. Like Usenova, she has noted that some government officials have had a harder time “letting go” of their former “mouthpiece” than others.
“There have been occasions when staff [at state television] have been openly phoned up by officials and told, ‘Put such and such an item first in the newscast, or you’re sacked,’” Rasner told EurasiaNet.org. “It is basically habit for people in the government to make threats to journalists, working for what is still a state-funded, state-owned asset and it is habit for journalists to feel threatened by them.”
This will likely continue, Rasner says, because the “idea of public broadcasting is not intuitive to anyone in the former Soviet Union.”
A US diplomatic cable recently released by WikiLeaks helps illustrates how official attitudes are deeply entrenched. Former US Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch called the state broadcaster a “dinosaur…mammoth in both size and reach.” In her December 14, 2006, cable, she detailed a series of failed efforts by opposition movements to wrest control of the station and submit it to public management.
Due to a culture of self-censorship that is a byproduct of persistent government interference, the state television channel has had trouble retaining talented journalists, said Alexander Kulinsky, a media expert and former editor at the outlet. As the major domestic broadcaster, “OTRK should offer an example to the other privately owned stations. Instead, its top professionals who are striving for something go to Kazakhstan or Russia,” where they are better paid, Kulinsky said.
Until the broadcaster can overcome “structural issues” such as a bloated payroll and a fixed budget, “we will see journalists engaging in PR [on behalf of paying politicians],” he added. “This was the experience during the [October 2010] parliamentary elections.”
Though “economics is a factor” in how journalists cover politicians, Internews’ Rasner hopes that a code of conduct for election coverage introduced by the channel’s supervisory board will stem corruption and prevent news shows from turning into de facto paid infomercials. But that doesn’t mean that officials with a stake in the outcome of this October’s presidential ballot will refrain from meddling, she said.
“The notion of the government relinquishing control of anything the size and power of OTRK is still a novelty,” Rasner said. “To expect the state not to try and influence a major information resource is kind of naive.”