While life is never easy for independent media in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan's leading independent newspaper now faces closure -- and its editor possible jail time on criminal charges -- after it published a report that accused Bishkek tax officials of corruption.
"De Facto" Editor in Chief Cholpon Orozobekova, who faces up to five years in prison if convicted, says authorities want to stop her newspaper's reporting on corruption and nepotism in the country's top echelons.
Libel charges were brought against Orozobekova after the newspaper published an open letter on June 12 from a woman who used the pseudonym of Zamira Moldoeva. She alleged corruption in the Bishkek city tax committee and provided the names of tax officials she accused of accepting bribes.
The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has protested the authorities' decision to bring criminal rather than civil charges against Orozobekova. The editor, who has also received threats, is charged with publishing "deliberately false accusations" against Taalaybek Dalbaev, the chief tax inspector for Bishkek.
"I was summoned for another interrogation on July 3," Orozobekova recalls. "The investigator told me, 'We have a surprise for you.' I thought at once, 'I will be imprisoned.' He gave me a sheet of paper and asked me to sign it. It was a formal charge against me. So I was charged. Until then, I had been a witness. One should have expected that. I believe they want to threaten and break me morally."
The criminal investigation was launched the day after "De Facto" published Moldoeva's letter. Formal charges were brought on June 14. Orozobekova believes the swiftness with which authorities moved suggests the case is politically motivated.
Orozobekova describes as "ridiculous" the authorities' assertion "within 24 hours" that the bribery accusation was proven false. "Even a fool understands that they want to make the editors guilty and close the newspaper," she says.
The paper's premises were searched twice, its financial documents and computers were confiscated, and bank accounts frozen. Orozobekova's says her apartment was also searched.
The newspaper's editors printed two more issues using the personal computers of staff and friends. But on July 1, Orozobekova had to fully suspend publishing due to financial and logistical difficulties. The staff has gone on vacation until August 20.
Orozobekova says she has not been able to find the letter's author. "My problem is that the woman disappeared," she says, adding that she does not rule out that the whole business with the open letter was arranged with the purpose of discrediting "De Facto" and closing it.
The New Opposition
"De Facto" was launched in February 2007 and quickly gained popularity. By the end of 2007, it had become the biggest Kyrgyz-language print media outlet in the country with a weekly circulation of 25,000. Earlier this year, "De Facto" won a national award as "The Breakthrough of the Year."
Its success was partly due to its ability to fill in the void that emerged after the March 2005 popular uprising. In the aftermath of President Askar Akaev's ouster, most opposition media moved to publicly support the new authorities led by Bakiev. "De Facto" has been critical of the Bakiev administration and become the new opposition media.
However, Orozobekova says there are no politicians or big businessmen behind "De Facto." The 32-year-old journalist, who once worked for RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, says she and her husband, who is also a professional journalist, are the owners of the newspaper.
She says that as the paper's popularity increased, so did the pressure against it.
Last month, "De Facto" and another newspaper, "Alibi," lost a lawsuit against Asylbek Saliev, Bakiev's nephew. A court ordered the newspapers to pay 1 million soms each ($28,000) to Saliev for publishing an article alleging he was involved in a traffic accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian.
Orozobekova says the newspaper was unable to pay such a large sum of money and asked readers to help by donating one som each.
"We put a box in our office with 'Help the Bakievs!' written on it," she said. "You can't imagine how many people helped us. Many gave just one som. Others gave seven soms each because that's how much a Kyrgyz should give as charity. I think that irritated the authorities a lot. It looked like the Bakievs were not happy with all the riches they already have and needed another million from our newspaper."
The campaign was organized amid growing discontent among ordinary people over deepening nepotism and corruption in the country.
Silencing Critical Voices
Orozobekova says the authorities are now retaliating against her. "I have no hope to win the case. They may not jail me, but give me a suspended sentence. That will be the softest outcome I should expect," she says. "But acquitting me will be nonsense or a fairytale because courts in Kyrgyzstan work according to phone calls from the presidential palace."
In a statement on July 3, the media watchdog RSF criticized the authorities for bringing criminal charges against Orozobekova.
"The decision to bring a criminal prosecution against the newspaper instead of a civil suit, the freezing of its accounts, the threats received by its editor and the speed with which the judicial authorities acted are all disproportionate and suggest that real aim is to force 'De Facto' to close," the statement said.
"We expect the authorities to use the same diligence to identify and punish the person or persons responsible for the threats against Orozobekova," it added.
The Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, the country's biggest umbrella group of NGOs, has called the case against "De Facto" politically motivated and aimed at intimidating journalists and destroying the free press.
The country's ombudsman, whose job is to hear complaints by citizens about the government, has noted that "De Facto" should not make unsubstantiated allegations against officials. But Tursunbek Akun also says: "it is wrong to open a criminal case and persecute the newspaper for such reasons. Anyone who disagrees with an article can go to court and resolve matters by that route, without punitive action."
Akun says the case raises worrying questions about press freedom.