BISHKEK -- Some 250 people -- prominent opposition politicians, lawmakers, and rights activists among them -- gathered today outside the offices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Bishkek to ask for help to protect freedom of speech in the country, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports.
Protesters said the government has closed down the last avenues of freedom of speech after blocking access to several websites last week, including centrasia.ru, ferghana.ru, and Azattyk, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service website, as well as taking Azattyk's television broadcasts off the air.
Demonstrators carried placards reading "Take Your Hands Off the Truth," "You Can't Close Every Single Mouth," and "Freedom to Azattyk."
Opposition lawmakers Roza Otunbaeva and Irina Karamushkina, Ak Shumkar opposition party leader Temur Sariev, and the head of the Ata Meken opposition party, Omurbek Tekebaev, were among the prominent political figures who joined the demonstration.
"Journalists have been killed [and independent] media outlets have been closed," Otunbaeva told RFE/RL. "We consider the [Kyrgyz] government to be harming stability."
The OSCE office in Bishkek told the demonstrators their message will be conveyed to the organization's representative on freedom of the media, who monitors violations of freedom of expression in OSCE member states and promotes full compliance with democratic principles of freedom of press and expression.
Access to the popular news websites has been blocked since March 10. Kyrgyz rights activists last week condemned the development as a coordinated attack by authorities on freedom of speech.
Since March 1, RFE/RL's affiliate partners -- Radio OK, Radio Most, Radio Royal, and Radio Almaz-Naryn -- have not been re-broadcasting the programs of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Also, the private television company Manas Janyrygy (Echo of Manas) stopped broadcasting RFE/RL's television shows in Kyrgyz. The affiliates told RFE/RL they had to stop broadcasting the programs due to pressure from the government.
However, Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov told RFE/RL at a press conference in Bishkek today that he is unaware of the situation. He promised RFE/RL's correspondent help to solve the issue, adding that RFE/RL's leadership should send him an official letter regarding the situation.
Demonstrators went beyond attacks on media freedoms today, calling on the government to be held accountable for the nation's income, including gold revenues, Kyrgyzstan's key export asset.
Today's protest comes two days ahead of nationwide antigovernment rallies by opposition supporters planned on March 17.
President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who swept to power amid popular protests in 2005, has come under extensive criticism by opponents for failing to institute reforms and for widespread corruption and nepotism. Bakiev's popularity suffered another blow after he appointed his son, Maksim, to a top post overseeing the country's economic affairs last November.
Several thousand people demonstrated last week in the central city of Naryn to demand that Maksim Bakiev leave the country.