Thanks to Kyrgyzstan’s on-again, off-again experiment with democracy, the Central Asian country has fewer journalists in jail than most of its neighbors. But over the last few months, a number of officials have signaled a cooling attitude toward the fourth estate. A theme stands out: Journalists are the reason Kyrgyzstan has a poor reputation; they must write nice things and stop criticizing.
Together with restrictive new legislation the officials’ comments paint a profile of an elite increasingly intolerant of criticism. Journalists are worried; one local editor says the attacks are encouraging self-censorship.
President Almazbek Atambayev deployed a wide brush on October 27, venting at a session of the national council on sustainable development:
“For the image of a country where corruption is a real disaster, even by comparison with African countries, we have our journalists to thank. Not in a single [other] country does the press pour dirt on officials like ours. They write that everything is bad in Kyrgyzstan, that corruption is blooming. This is disrespect for the country and for the truth. There’s this idea that the more dirt a journalist has poured on, the more freedom-loving and better he is.”
“[Journalists] get offended, because I say this very often, but this is the truth. I hope that the conscience of the majority awakens and they will start publishing impartial information.” [Sources: first paragraph Vechernii Bishkek; second paragraph BBC Monitoring translation of KyrTAG, which is paywalled.]
No doubt Kyrgyzstan, like many other post-Soviet countries, has a dearth of high-quality professional media. It also has some unscrupulous journalists who write hit pieces for cash and “news” websites that exist largely to smear political opponents or business rivals. Indeed, these are justifications used by supporters of a vague new law, signed by Atambayev in May, that recriminalized libel.
A few weeks after Atambayev howled about the media, prominent legislator Tursunbai Bakir uulu – author of a Russian-style “foreign agents” bill that the president supports – said Kyrgyz journalists should be more like their Soviet predecessors, and “must praise Kyrgyzstan.”
Then, in late November, the Interior Ministry forgot that a journalist’s job is to report, not to whitewash, when it instructed Kloop.kg – a trailblazing and independent-minded news website – to take down a report on a jihadi propaganda video from Syria that featured Kazakh children. The Interior Ministry threatened to charge Kloop’s editors on the absurd pretext that by linking to the video in its report, Kloop had publicly justified terrorism, a crime that carries up to five years in jail. The Prosecutor General on December 10 demanded Kloop take down its report; on December 11, following confusing orders from the Prosecutor, a local Internet service provider blocked the site.
Now it is the business reporters’ turn. On December 9 Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil recommended parliament ban journalists from the latest round of hearings over the fate of Kyrgyzstan’s largest industrial asset, the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine. The government, parliament and Toronto-based Centerra Gold have been locked in negotiations over the future of the mine for almost two years; nationalists are again beating the expropriation drum.
Dil argued that reports from the hearings could hurt Kyrgyzstan in multiple ongoing arbitration suits the country faces in international courts. The suits are worth almost a billion dollars and will affect the country’s business environment for generations to come.
Certainly governments and businesses have legitimate secrets. But Dil suggested that journalists bear blame for Kyrgyzstan’s current place in arbitration purgatory. That shifts responsibility—much like Atambayev did when he declared journalists guilty for Kyrgyzstan’s poor image.
Local business leaders complain the president has largely ignored the arbitration tribunals. Lately it seems like Kyrgyzstan’s leadership thinks the media should help everyone else ignore them too—along with anything else unflattering or contentious.