Prague, 10 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan's parliament has rejected a draft amendment proposed by President Askar Akayev that would have eliminated jail sentences for libel and slander. By a two-thirds majority, it voted that libel and slander should remain criminal offenses punishable by up to three years in prison.
Despite the law, no journalists convicted of libel or slander have actually been sentenced to prison in quite a few years. In one of the last cases, in 1997, the chief editor and a journalist from the independent newspaper "Respublika" were sentenced to 18 months in a penal colony for libeling the manager of a state company. Their sentences were suspended later that same year.
"There is a lot of animosity between the parliament, especially the opposition parliament members, and the pro-governmental media. Almost every day we have very slanderous publications against all real candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections and all prospective presidential aspirants."
The issue has become sensitive in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections due next year, in which Akaev has vowed to stand down.
Some deputies opposed to relaxing the law believe everyone should be held accountable for what he or she writes or broadcasts. Others say it would be unwise to adopt such a change so close to next year's electoral campaigns.
Omurbek Tekebaev is an opposition member of parliament from the Atameken (Motherland) Socialist Party. He says he voted against the proposal in part because most media outlets in Kyrgyzstan are under government control.
"Freedom of speech belongs not only to journalists, but also to all the people. That is why we cannot talk about journalists only. I think it is early to adopt this law. Besides that, [most of the] mass media in Kyrgyzstan is under the control of [Akaev's] family or of the government," Tekebaev said.
Natalia Ablova, director of the Kyrgyz-American Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law in Bishkek, explains why a great number of opposition parliamentarians voted down the proposition.
"There is a lot of animosity between the parliament, especially the opposition parliament members, and the pro-governmental media. Almost every day we have very slanderous publications against all real candidates for the forthcoming parliamentary elections and all prospective presidential aspirants," Ablova said.
Kyrgyzstan's laws on libel and slander are similar to those in the other four Central Asian republics.
Soria Blatmann works in Paris for the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, which seeks to eliminate jail sentences for violations of press laws. She says the decriminalization of libel and slander is a step toward democracy.
"In accordance with the recommendations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, and the recommendation of the United Nations, it is not conceivable that in a democratic country a journalist is imprisoned simply because he wrote an article -- whatever the article. Former Soviet [republics] and East European countries must follow these European standards, even though at the very heart of the European Union some countries have maintained jail sentences for libel, such as Italy," Blatmann says.
In February, an Italian court sentenced journalist Massimiliano Melilli to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay a 100,000 euro ($121,054) fine for defaming the wife of the mayor of Trieste.
The Kyrgyz parliament also rejected (8 June) a draft amendment that would have required those seeking damages for libel and slander to first pay a fee equal to 5 percent of the amount sought. The purpose was to discourage frivolous lawsuits.
Some deputies said they voted against this particular amendment because it would have favored wealthy plaintiffs and prevented common citizens from seeking justice.
Some deputies in favor of the amendment noted that independent journalists and media outlets are frequently targeted in such lawsuits.
Many independent newspapers in Kyrgyzstan have gone bankrupt after courts ruled against them in libel cases and issued large fines. Officials have filed lawsuits against media outlets that have sought to publicize evidence of high-level corruption in the impoverished republic.
Beken Nazaraliyev is editor in chief of the independent newspaper "Jangy Ordo" ("New Horde"). His previous publication, "Kyrgyz Ordo," went bankrupt last year after it was ordered to pay a fine of more than $8,000.
Nazaraliyev explains why a majority of deputies voted against the second amendment.
"Because a majority of deputies do not have clean pasts. They are afraid of that. Fines are hitting newspapers very hard. We experienced that when we were sued twice and forced to close down our newspaper because we couldn't pay a large sum of money. [Some deputies] are trying to close down independent outlets through fines, with the help of the judiciary system," Nazaraliyev says.
It is expected the Kyrgyz parliament will not debate the two proposals again before parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2005.
(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroyev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)