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Kyrgyzstan's president waives libel fee as he shows a softer side

The act of magnanimity pointedly contrasts Jeenbekov with his litigious predecessor.

The president of Kyrgyzstan has earned some brownie points with the activist and media community by dropping onerous libel claims against a journalist and former lawmaker.

President Sooronbai Jeenbekov’s people on April 17 revealed that he would agree to let Kabai Karabekov off the hook for a $73,500 libel bill as long as the writer publicly apologizes for alleging in an article that the leader and his brother had ties to “radical Arab organizations.”

Jeenbekov filed suit against Karabekov and 24.kg news website, where the offending piece appeared, back in September, while he was running for office. The Sverdlovsk district court ruled in Jeenbekov’s favor and ordered $147,000 in damages to be paid jointly by the journalist and website as a form of “moral compensation.”

Revealing his compassionate side, the president forgave 24.kg its debts in February. But this second concession has won him particularly enthusiastic praise.

“This action will go down in the history of Kyrgyzstan! Sooronbai Jeenbekov dropped his material claims against Kabai Karabekov,” tweeted Ulan Dzhumakov, a lawyer and activist not known for hailing public officials.

The subtext here is reasonably clear. Jeenbekov is putting clear blue water between himself and his intensely litigious and thin-skinned predecessor Almazbek Atambayev, who was required constitutionally to step down at the end of his six-year term in November.

Even as the clock ticked down on his time in office, Atambayev began to behave in an ever-more authoritarian manner. After several of his political opponents were targeted with spurious criminal cases, attention turned to the press and sections of Kyrgyzstan’s lively civil society scene. Courts slapped journalists with fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes just for printing other people’s criticisms of Atambayev.

In one notable instance, spiky news website Zanoza.kg was found guilty of libel for reporting the comments of outspoken businesswoman and activist Cholpon Dzhakupova, who opined at a political roundtable that Atambayev was “a personality with maniacal tendencies.” Dzhakupova was also fined as part of the same case.

Since Atambayev was president, he could hardly be seen to file the libel cases himself, so that task was tacitly delegated to the General Prosecutor’s Office, which argued it was acting in the service of defending the dignity of the head of state.

Jeenbekov, a former prime minister whose fortunes in the presidential election campaign were lent heavy administrative succour by Atambayev, also got in on the act by filing suit against Karabekov.

But now the 59-year-old is president, he has decided to show magnanimity. The contrast looks intended to upstage Atambayev, with whom Jeenbekov appears to have fallen out.

Atambayev, 61, had until recently operated under the assumption that Jeenbekov would continue to defer to him, seek his counsel and obediently heed his advice in his new role as a veteran statesman. When it emerged that Jeenbekov had other ideas, Atambayev harrumphed irritatedly in trademark fashion. In the days that followed, the president responded by giving several Atambayev holdovers in high-ranking security posts their marching orders.

There is also a less parochial dimension to Jeenbekov’s lenience. On April 12, he paid a visit to Brussels, where media freedoms were high on the agenda as he met European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. Waiving libel payments was an easy way for Jeenbekov to make the case that his government values the role of the media.

Either way, this is all as much about public relations as anything else.

Jeenbekov again implicitly shamed his would-be ally by taking a regular scheduled commercial flight when he traveled to the southern city of Osh for personal reasons last week. Only a few days earlier, Atambayev had jetted off to China’s Hainan Province to parley with that nation’s president, Xi Jinping, in a private carrier allegedly owned by Kazakh oligarch Alimzhan Ibraimov.

It is not public knowledge whether Atambayev’s visit to the conference hosted by Xi and attended by world leaders past and present was paid out of the state budget. But the ex-head of state was seen off with much pomp by Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, one his last big-name allies in government, and he was accompanied by a small clique of former officials.

Beyond this image-burnishing business, there are more serious challenges on the horizon for Jeenbekov.

On April 18, a broad spectrum of prominent civic activists appealed in an open letter to the president and the parliament to set up a commission to investigate the misdeeds of judges, law enforcement officials and prosecutors during his predecessor’s reign.

The letter makes a point of noting that the proposed commission should be prepared to determine the guilt of officials past and present “involved in the political persecution and criminal prosecution of representatives of the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition.”

Crossing that red line would push the escalating confrontation between Jeenbekov and Atambayev up by quite a few notches.

Kyrgyzstan's president waives libel fee as he shows a softer side

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