Close But No Cigar: Top 5 Failures for Press Freedom in Kyrgyzstan

In honor of Hungary’s recent “will they won’t they” struggle with internet freedoms, I’ll be featuring a group of posts from my post-Soviet students, writing on the issue of media freedom in other post-communist countries.  Here is the first in that series, describing Kyrgyzstan’s struggle with media and democracy.

Many claim that Kyrgyzstan is relatively freer than her neighbors in Central Asia in terms of press freedom. But Kyrgyzstan’s scores are still unimpressive. Freedom House rates the Kyrgyz Republic at 66 out of 100 on their press freedom score and 158 out of 196 and a status of not free on their press freedom index. Reporters Without Borders rates Kyrgyzstan at 106 out of 179 on their press freedom index. This begs the question, “Why is press freedom so limited in Kyrgyzstan?” To help answer this question I have listed the top failures of Kyrgyzstani press freedom:

5. Direct control of the public service broadcaster

The Public Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) was a creation of Bakiyev’s presidency and is an unprecedented and unique institution for Central Asia. The Corporation is headed by a supervisory board of 15 members, with 5 members each appointed by the President, the parliament, and civil society with the 5 civil society members confirmed by the parliament. Furthermore, parliament has the ability to dissolve the board at will.

4. Foresight over broadcasting

Every media source looking to be broadcasted in Kyrgyzstan is required to register with the Ministry of Justice. Which may not seem so bad, but there’s more. The registration focuses on the source of an outlet’s funding, this reveals what outlets are funded by international parties. And what’s more, parliament considered a bill that would require foreign funded media to register as “foreign agents.” Fortunately, the bill was shot down. An example of how this system might create problems, in 2013 the Ministry began denying licenses to analog channels in the hopes of fully converting Kyrgyz television to digital. Perhaps a respectable goal, but many broadcasters don’t have enough funding as it is, let alone enough to make the switch.

3. Criminalization of candid reporting

In Kyrgyzstan, penalties exist for insults against public figures and for “inciting national hatred.” The latter is particularly directed towards online sources. To give some perspective, the BBC reports that “there were 2.2 million internet users by June 2010” with a “lively blogosphere.” Furthermore, Opennet Initiative is pessimistic about Kyrgyzstan’s internet freedom.

2. Content Censorship

According to Freedom House, officials of the government are wont to control the coverage of certain stories and some outlets even censor their own journalists to avoid the government censorship. In a major example, the Russian-language news source Ferghana News was shut down for “provocative” coverage of the 2010 ethnic conflict in Osh. Only recently was the outlet allowed to restart, and it is now filing against the government.

1. Ethnicity-related Discrimination

The final and most serious issue with Kyrgyzstan’s treatment of the press is in reference to news sources designed to serve the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz government imprisoned a journalist by the name of Azimjon Saipov who is still serving a life sentence for inciting ethnic hatred. And to add insult to injury, Azimjon’s brother Alisher’s death went uninvestigated. The Institute of War and Peace Reporting expounds on this issue, one example being “two women [who] threatened Reuters correspondent Hulkar Isamova with a knife and accused her of supporting an Uzbek community leader wanted by the authorities. Three days prior to that incident, a dozen people burst into a news agency office in Osh, threatening staff and accusing them of being spies for Uzbekistan.” It seems discrimination against Uzbek sources is not confined to the government.

The ultimate question remains. What does this mean for Kyrgyzstan? Media outlets are few and rest on shaky finances and the pendulum of the state’s favor. The online realm is limited and one can never know when the government will raise an eye to a citizen’s activity. Responsible reporting means reporting the facts the government sells. And the Uzbek minority does not and perhaps will not for a long time have access to sources designed for and by themselves.

With all of these issues, progress seems bleak. But progress there is. And the OSCE along with other sources in the West see a silver lining.




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