A report aired after a live prime-time election debate in Kyrgyzstan on the evening of September 26 is sparking suspicions the state broadcaster is trying to influence the outcome of the vote.
The apparent hatchet job of rivals to President Almazbek Atambayev’s Social Democratic Party (SDPK) bears hallmarks of the “administrative resources” used by semi-democratic systems in the post-Soviet world to give incumbents an unfair advantage.
SDPK is already widely expected to win the largest share of the ballot in the October 4 contest to pick the 120 members of the Jogorku Kenesh.
Under Kyrgyzstan’s first and second presidents, Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev, KTRK (Kyrgyz Teleradio Company) was regularly used to help enhance the ruling party’s performance. While more voters are now reliant on the Internet for their news, television remains the country’s most powerful resource.
All this was supposed to have changed in 2010, when the interim government passed a decree transforming KTRK into a public broadcaster with its own supervisory board.
But what followed an otherwise stimulating weekend debate — between the leaders Ata-Meken, Butun-Kyrgyzstan-Emgek and Onuguu-Progress parties; Omurbek Tekebayev, Adahan Madumarov and Bakyt Torobaev, respectively — was strongly reminiscent of the bad old days.
The short news item, entitled “How Much Is Your Vote Worth?,” saw KTRK journalists canvass various experts and members of the public about the risk of candidates buying votes.
The primary targets for criticism were Ata-Meken, Bir Bol and Respublika-Ata-Jurt — all parties believed to have good prospects of entering parliament and potentially robbing SDPK of a flat-out majority.
First up was Ata-Meken, which was accused of building and painting a fence for residents of a Soviet-era apartment bloc in the run-up to the vote. With some residents providing ambivalent responses over whether the party had actually offered their construction and decorating services, the viewer was left with the impression that it probably had.
The report then dwelled on an incident from 2012, when oligarch Omurbek Babanov’s Respublika party — now in league with Kamchibek Tashiyev’s Ata-Jurt — was caught on tape organizing “carousel voting” during municipal elections.
Footage then followed of Altynbek Suleimanov and Ishak Pirmatov, prominent members of Bir Bol, at an auction for a mining license several years ago. The connection with potential vote-buying was less clear here, but Suleimanov and Pirmatov were cast as untrustworthy figures intent on sowing trouble in a sector deemed critical to Kyrgyzstan’s economy.
The narrator of the report commented in a voiceover that political parties were likely spending more money than officially permitted on their campaigns. Driving the point home, interviews with political observers speculating that some of the money might be coming from the ousted Bakiyev and Akayev families were edited in with shots of Bir Bol and Onuguu-Progress campaign banners.
SDPK was conspicuously absent from that segment. The following report, however, showed President Almazbek Atambayev making a speech to Soviet-style applause during a working visit to Issyk-Kul.
The irony was not lost on social media users, one of whom mock-congratulated the broadcaster’s general director, Ilim Karypbekov:
“Black PR on the main channel of @KTRK_kg NOW! Bravo @ilimkm”
The same Twitter user then added: “Five minutes of dirt slung at the main competitors of SDPK.”
The broadcaster has come under fire since it came under the helm of Karypbekov, a former top official in the secretariat of disgraced former president Bakiyev.
In May, the broadcaster aired a 25-minute hatched job of leading Russian-language newspaper and website Vecherniy Bishkek. The outlet had previously accused senior figures in Atambayev’s administration of attempting to expropriate the Rubicon media holding that owns Vecherniy Bishkek.
The report, titled “A Business Based on Lies,” offered no counterpoint to balance the accusatory slant of the narrator, who depicted the newspaper — known for its anti-government line since the 2010 revolution — as a vehicle for the ousted Bakiyev family’s political and economic interests.
In August, a Kyrgyz court ruled to transfer the assets of the Rubicon media holding from then-owner Aleksandr Kim to a former co-owner, Aleksandr Ryabushkin. A large part of the newspaper’s staff then left the holding and set up the zanoza.kg website.
Atambayev in July accused Vecherniy Bishkek of being responsible for the death of his brother, who he said had suffered a heart attack induced by the newspaper’s aggressive reporting about the presidential family’s business interests.