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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Kyrgyzstan

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Kyrgyzstan, February 1998, available at: [accessed 18 December 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Kyrgyzstan clings to its reputation as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarian Central Asian states. President Askar Akayev took steps several times this year to salvage his reputation for tolerance of independent and opposition media. But his steps were merely gestures to accommodate Western opinion and investors, and attempts to mask a pattern of attacks against the press.

The attacks ranged from the appointment of a former Communist Party ideology secretary as head of state radio and television to sanctioning criminal charges against journalists for insulting the president. A number of newspapers were refused registration or were shut down because of articles offensive to the government.

Res Publika, the leading opposition newspaper, has suffered the brunt of the crackdown, in part from a criminal libel suit filed by a state-run gold-mining company. Ultimately, the paper was forced to suspend operations after four of its journalists were convicted in May on criminal libel charges, for which the penalties included forced labor and a ban on practicing journalism for up to 18 months. Three of the convictions were ultimately overturned, and in the fourth case the sentence was suspended.

The case of Yryspek Omurzakov, a reporter for Res Publika, was especially disturbing. After several warnings for his satirical writings, he was arrested on March 24 on a criminal libel charge. CPJ and international human rights organizations protested the prosecution. He was convicted in October and sentenced to three years in jail.

At a press conference in New York in July, Akayev spoke of the value he attributed to the development of a free press as the cornerstone of the democratic development in his country. He mentioned that the opposition newspapers were "free to criticize the leadership of the country," but did not elaborate on the penalties for such actions. CPJ used the occasion to confront Akayev about the prosecution of the Res Publika reporters and editors and the use of criminal libel statutes against journalists. Although the president agreed that "there were certain problems," he said "not much can be done until a new civil code is adopted." He added that although its laws were not ideal, Kyrgyzstan needed to "adhere to the rule of law." When CPJ's representative urged the president to use his authority to stop attacks on the media, Akayev said he could not interfere with the independence of the judiciary. In reality, however, the suits against the journalists were brought by the prosecutor's office, an institution which has retained the Soviet-era powers of investigating, prosecuting, and overseeing criminal cases. Local journalists and foreign observers said the president has a significant impact on decisions of prosecutors and judges concerning journalists.

On November 12, the parliament adopted several amendments to the existing media law. The amendments affect 47 articles regulating citizens' freedom to gather and impart information, as well as journalists' rights and obligations. According to the bill, "moral damage inflicted on a citizen or legal entity which discredits a citizen or blackens the business' reputation" would have to be compensated both by the journalist and by the media unit "on a scale to be established by the court."

On December 8, President Akayev vetoed the amendments, chiefly because he opposed Article 12 of the bill, which he said "considerably curtails media rights and freedoms." Akayev suggested deleting the clause barring journalists from reporting on ongoing criminal investigations. He proposed a law guaranteeing the protection of journalists' professional activities, which was adopted by the legislative assembly. It forbids censorship and makes public officials liable for preventing journalists from exercising their professional responsibilities. The law also includes a provision replacing criminal penalties for libel with fines and damages.

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