Kyrgyzstan’s thin-skinned President Almazbek Atambayev’s long-running and unseemly spat with an outspoken local journalist has taken a fresh and typically farcical turn.
After Atambayev successfully sued the editor of Kyrgyz language outlet Maalymat.kg, Dayirbek Orunbekov, for defamation last year for a whopping $26,000, the journalist has managed to persuade a local court to take up a case against the president on similar grounds.
If Orunbekov wins — which few expect — he will claim from the head of state a single unit of the battered national currency, the som.
Judicial proceedings to determine whether or not Atambayev defamed Orunbekov in his end of year speech, by effectively accusing him of being a slanderer-for-hire, began earlier this week.
Testifying in Atambayev’s favor, presidential representative Chynara Musabekova told the court on January 28 that suggestions Orunbekov was “working on somebody’s money” when writing articles critical of the head of state were only a “hypothesis” rather than an insult to Orunbekov’s “honor and dignity.”
According to local news site Kloop.kg, Orunbekov was prevented from making his own argument in court due to his inadequate Russian, with testimony in the state language Kyrgyz oddly inadmissible.
Orunbekov was originally sued by Atambayev for writing an article in 2014 that held him responsible for sparking bloody ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks that took place in the south of the country in 2010.
Such sensationalist and scantily sourced pieces are not uncommon among elements of the domestic tabloid press that support (and are supported by) southern nationalist politicians eager to obscure their own role in fomenting the conflict.
Nevertheless, Atambayev’s running battle with Orunbekov highlights the shrinking space allowed for free speech in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the delicate personality of a president that seems to enjoy taking on his critics in person and has already accused the national mass media of murdering his mother and brother.
The Chui regional court’s December order for Orunbekov to pay damages to Atambayev drew swift criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The organization’s media rights ombudswoman Dunja Mijatovic pointedly called on high-ranking officials to “exercise great restraint when faced with critical reporting” and “tolerate a higher degree of criticism than ordinary citizens.”
The rebuke was countered almost immediately by a prickly statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which called the rebuke “a baseless and subjective attempt by Ms Mijatovic to exercise a certain influence on the judicial branch of the state” which “no-one has a right to question.”