It's now two months since the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (UTRK) stopped broadcasting the radio and television programming of Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz-language service.
Prior to the ouster of President Askar Akaev in the so-called Tulip Revolution in March 2005, the UTRK was notorious for broadcasting lies and propaganda that served the interests of Akaev's authoritarian regime.
But immediately following Akaev's ouster, UTRK staff embraced the goal of transforming the company into a genuine public broadcasting corporation that would live up to the spirit and demands of the revolution. Within hours of the collapse of the old regime, the UTRK threw open its doors to cooperation with international partners, including Radio Azattyk.
Beginning in March 2005, the UTRK began broadcasting not only Azattyk radio programming, but also Azattyk's weekly television program, "Inconvenient Questions," which was a unique opportunity for the UTRK to give the floor within the same show to both government officials and members of the opposition. This cooperation brought benefits to viewers and listeners across the country, and became a model of post-Soviet professional journalism for all of Central Asia.
The catalyst for the 2005 Tulip Revolution was a desperate bid by the Akaev regime to rig the outcome of parliamentary elections to prevent a victory by opposition forces headed by former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev and retain power. But the government's approach to sidelining the opposition in the run-up to the local elections scheduled for October 5, 2008 -- the first since the Tulip Revolution -- suggest that Bakiev, who was himself elected president in July 2005 with 89 percent of the vote, has forgotten that.
Litany Of Excuses
The crisis in relations between UTRK and Radio Azattyk began on October 1, when the UTRK management "suddenly" lost the prerecorded videotape of that evening's "Inconvenient Questions." The guests on that program, which focused on preparations for the elections, were Central Election Commission member Amankul Moldaliev and former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev, who now leads the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) Socialist Party and is regarded as the main challenger to President Bakiev.
One week later, on October 8, listeners in Kyrgyzstan tuned in as usual to the "Evening Azattyk" radio program, which aired a regular promotion of upcoming TV broadcasts, including the new edition of "Inconvenient Questions." That program was to be devoted to coverage of the preliminary results of the October 5 elections, with the participation of Central Election Commission member Samat Borubaev and Temir Sariev, leader of the opposition Ak Shumkar (White Falcon) party.
But fans of "Inconvenient Questions" were disappointed that evening for a second time, when again the program did not go on the air. The next morning, Azattyk's regular morning radio broadcasts were not broadcast, and all Azattyk's other programs, including the youth TV show, were taken off the air as well.
UTRK's management did not even inform its partners officially of that decision. It subsequently claimed that the only reason that Azattyk was taken off the air was due to delays in financial transfers to the UTRK by the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), the subsidiary agency of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors that signed the original cooperation agreement with the UTRK in 2005. (Payment was delayed because the UTRK on five occasions provided the IBB with incorrect bank-account numbers.)
But if that were indeed the case, one would expect that broadcasts would have resumed after the outstanding payments were finally received in Bishkek last month and gratefully acknowledged by the UTRK.
Then on December 1, the UTRK suspended the BBC's Kyrgyz-language broadcasts too. In an exclusive interview with Radio Azattyk, UTRK Director Melis Eshimkanov, who is a former opposition lawmaker and journalist, denied that move was politically motivated and said BBC broadcasts would resume as soon as business disputes between the two companies were resolved. Eshimkanov set a tentative date of December 10 for resuming BBC broadcasts, but declined to do the same for Azattyk.
That decision clearly rests not with Eshimkanov, however, but with Bakiev, who has abandoned his game of cat-and-mouse with the opposition and emerged as a semi-authoritarian ruler -- meaning one who poses as a democrat to the outside world and eschews gratuitous brutality as a means to curb the political opposition, as distinct from a full-fledged authoritarian who totally rejects the concepts of liberty and democracy.
In September, President Bakiev publicly complained that opposition politicians who appear on Azattyk's TV show field tough questions expertly and convincingly, in contrast to some government officials who clearly have difficulty in answering such questions. But those officials' poor performance can hardly be blamed on an independent TV show.
Local analysts, media experts, and politicians interviewed by independent local media outlets (including the Bishkek Press Club) all believe that the popularity of Radio Azattyk's unbiased and objective programs is gradually becoming a threat to Kyrgyzstan's semi-authoritarian leadership, which is faced with the prospect of an upsurge in popular discontent in response to the mushrooming economic crisis and anticipated energy shortfalls during the winter months.
Two independent Kyrgyz-language newspapers, "De Facto" and "Alibi," have already been forced to stop publication this year, and "De Facto" Editor in Chief Cholpon Orozobekova has been granted political asylum in Europe. The independent local TV station September based in the southern province of Jalal-Abad was similarly forced to stop broadcasting in March after it was unable to rent land to install its antenna and satellite dish.
The intensity of public anger is reflected in a recent comment by a visitor to Azattyk's website, who wrote: "Bakiev's totalitarian regime cannot coexist in the same space with Azattyk. It can only survive in a climate of lies, toadying, and bribery." He went on to advocate the ouster of "Bakiev and all his satellites." Other comments urge the Kyrgyz government to restore the broadcasting of Radio Azattyk by the UTRK.
Numerous political figures have expressed their support. "I travel a lot to the regions and I can say that Azattyk has become a unique source of information," Ak Shumkar leader Sariev told an Azattyk correspondent on December 9. "It's impossible to obtain full, accurate, truthful information [from other sources]. We can say that the authorities are afraid of Azattyk because they are afraid of truth."
And ombudsman Tursunbek Akun, speaking on December 10 in Bishkek to mark World Human Rights Day, said Radio Azattyk "has played a big role in the progress of Kyrgyz democracy, in protecting human rights, in developing freedom of speech, in establishing impartiality in Kyrgyzstan."
Nearly four years after the March 2005 revolution that inspired such hopes for broad democratic transformation in Kyrgyzstan, both I and other citizens of Kyrgyzstan remain hopeful that we are not witnessing an attempt to prevent ordinary citizens from receiving objective and balanced information.
At the same time, as a realist, I fear that Radio Azattyk's dilemma is a "litmus test" for democratization in a country that is on the verge of forfeiting the reputation it enjoyed until very recently as a beacon of liberty and hope in Central Asia.
Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin) is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL