As should probably have been expected, a countersuit filed by journalist Dayirbek Orunbekov against the president of Kyrgyzstan has fallen at the first hurdle.
Pervomaisky district court’s ruling on February 15 was clear — Almazbek Atambayev did not insult the editor of Kyrgyz-language news website Maalymat.kg.
Orunbekov has already said he will appeal the decision within the month at a city court in the capital, Bishkek.
The dispute dates back to late 2014, when Orunbekov ran a story accusing Atambayev of being implicated in the 2010 ethnic clashes in Osh between Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities that left several hundred dead. Atambayev only assumed the presidency after winning an election in 2011, but he was serving in the interim government that took power after the bloody overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010.
The General Prosecutor’s Office responded to the piece by filing a defamation lawsuit in April 2015 against Orunbekov.
Orunbekov lost the case and was ordered to pay $26,000 in damages to Atambaev.
Media advocacy groups were unimpressed.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s media rights watchdog Dunja Mijatovic in December urged Kyrgyzstan to desist from slapping onerous penalties on journalists for civil defamation.
“Excessive fines imposed on journalists and media outlets as a means of protecting the head of a state can lead to self-censorship,” Mijatovic said at the time. “Disproportionate and high fines are detrimental to freedom of the media.”
These rebukes tend to fall on deaf ears in the region, so Orunbekov took matters into his own hands by filing a countersuit in retaliation for Atambayev accusing him of being a slanderer-for-hire. The president leveled his accusation during the annual end-of-year press conference in December.
The journalist asked for a symbolic single Kyrgyz som in damages.
In a surprise ruling, the court agreed to entertain the case — the first time a lawsuit against a sitting president has been heard in Kyrgyzstan.
In court, Atambayev’s main line of defense appeared to be that his remarks were simply a “hypothesis.”
Orunbekov was unable to provide a retort, however, as the judge declined to allow the reporter to speak in his native Kyrgyz, and insisted he give his testimony in Russian, which he speaks poorly.
The legal battle has highlighted the palpably worsening environment for media freedoms — a situation apparently endorsed by Atambayev, who has complained about the media creating an “image of corruption” in Kyrgyzstan. In one particularly bitter broadside, Atambayev blamed popular newspaper Vecherniy Bishkek of hounding his brother to death through their impertinent reporting.