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Kyrgyzstan: Obstacles To Totally Independent Media Remain

New Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev made a lot of promises when he was campaigning for office earlier this year. Among them was a pledge to rid the country of state-owned media. Work toward this goal has begun, but it’s a tall task. RFE/RL looks at some of the challenges Kyrgyzstan and its new leaders face in making the media in the country totally independent.

Prague, 15 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- At the start of the year, about half the media outlets in Kyrgyzstan were owned or partially subsidized by the government.

But then came the tumultuous events of February and March, which ended with the country’s only postindependence president being chased from power. The opposition came to power -- the same opposition targeted by state-owned media for more than 13 years.

And sure enough, the new leadership promised changes to the media landscape -- changes that are now under way.

Elvira Sarieva, the managing director in Kyrgyzstan of Internews, a U.S.-based organization that helps train journalists around the world, explained the first steps of a move intended to make Kyrgyzstan’s media totally independent -- and the role Internews is playing.

“There are two entities; in the parliament there’s a working commission which includes parliamentarians and the civil society and representatives of state media," she told RFE/RL. "We [Internews] are part of this commission. In the government, there’s a special state working commission which was established by the president and our representative is there as well, as a member.”

The state commission has already drafted a new media law. It is currently under debate.
"Now, [President] Bakiev is promising a very benevolent rule, but I think what most observers would want to see are institutions which would be truly independent of the government." - IWPR's McCloud

John McCloud of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting told RFE/RL that there are some challenges involved in changing over to a totally independent media. “One is that if the state retains ties to the public-service broadcaster, there’s a danger it remains de facto a government-controlled institution," he said. "Now, [President] Bakiev is promising a very benevolent rule, but I think what most observers would want to see are institutions which would be truly independent of the government.”

But in poverty-stricken Kyrgyzstan it will not be so easy for the government to cut all ties to the media. McCloud and Sarieva agreed that the state would have to maintain some financial connection to the media, particularly to the only television channel that broadcasts throughout the mountainous country. Sarieva said the draft law, in its current form, provides for partial state funding of some media outlets.

McCloud mentioned another, possibly more important problem in this transformation to a free media. “The second question is the private sector’s stake in the [media] company, whether that will be a negative influence," he said. "That’s also certainly possible. In Russia, where you had powerful businessmen setting up their media empires in the mid-90s, some of them weren’t bad at all but of course they did tend to reflect the political views of their owners. And the other danger was that when those owners fell from grace it created considerable turbulence in the media industry.”

Kyrgyzstan may not have tycoons as rich as Boris Berezovskii or Vladimir Gusinskii -- to name two prominent former Russian media barons -- but Sarieva of Internews said there are some relatively wealthy people in Kyrgyzstan who are already following the paths of the Russian oligarchs.

“There are a few like that. Several main TV and radio stations in Bishkek, the capital, belong to certain circles and businesspeople who are pretty rich and they’re investing their money in the media outlets to pursue their own interests. So the risk is there,” Sarieva said.

Like many of the problems facing Kyrgyzstan, the transformation to a totally independent media will not happen soon. Sarieva gave a rough estimate of how long the process could take: “A lot depends on the parliament, how soon they would adopt the law on public TV. But generally, we think it’s going to take a long and difficult process -- one, two, three, up to five years to reach the main objective and the idea of public TV.”

It may prove a long and difficult process. But Kyrgyzstan does appear to be the only country in Central Asia capable of making such a move. With its existing small but independent media, the foundations are already there.