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Kyrgyzstan: Democracy And A Free Press--Endangered Species?

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The weekend before he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, Kyrgyz journalist Yrysbek Omurzakov was resigned to his fate.

"The facts have nothing to do with it," he said quietly. "The authorities want to teach independent journalists a lesson in this country, and I'm going to be their latest whipping boy."

Omurzakov works for the independent "Res Publica" newspaper, based in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek. His crime was to write an article condemning living conditions in a local factory dormitory. The article was based on first-hand reporting and supported by quotes from residents. But the factory director sued Omurzakov for libel. At the initial trial last Spring, factory workers lined up to testify in Omurzakov's favor. Conditions in the dormitory were indeed miserable, they said. The trial was adjourned.

When the proceedings reopened, the workers' testimony had vanished from the record. No new workers came to testify. Omurzakov says they were threatened with losing their jobs if they showed up in court. By contrast, a whole collection of positive character witnesses arrived to testify in the factory manager's favor. Omurzakov was soon found guilty.

He is not the first, and, say journalists and human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan, not likely to be the last.

Omurzakov's boss, the editor-in-chief of the "Res Publica" newspaper, was sentenced to two years in jail in 1996 for writing about government corruption. The official charge: "insulting the president." Zamira Sydykova appealed her conviction. She was freed after a month in a penal colony, but has not been exhonorated of the charge.

"Res Publica" is the only major opposition newspaper in Kyrgyzstan that has not been closed by the authorities, but Sydykova now fears it may come to that.

For a brief period after independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan was known as Central Asia's "little island of democracy." The name stuck, but the reality has long since ceased to exist, say local and international human rights organizations, especially since President Askar Akayev introduced presidential rule at the start of last year. Amnesty International currently tracks at least five prisoners of conscience in the country.

Many even dispute the original designation.

"Kyrgyzstan never was an island of democracy," says Natalia Ablova, director of the Bishkek-based Kyrgyz-American Office of Human Rights. "It just got called that because the countries around us were worse."

Tursunbek Akunov, another well-known local human rights activist, agrees.

"We still have some opposition figures," he says. "They haven't been forced to flee abroad, unlike those in many of the neighboring countries. But they are being made into dissidents and are continually harassed."

And the mood against journalists is turning equally sour. Kyrgyzstan's new criminal code retains an article protecting the "honor and dignity of the President" and it is increasingly being used to prosecute offending journalists when no other specific charge can be brought against them. Violators of the president's honor are liable to spend three years in prison or pay up to 100 times the monthly minimum wage. Since judges are personally confirmed by the president, as is the prosecutor-general, the outcome of thesse trials is never a surprise.

Deputy Prime Minister Kemelbek Nanayev says the trials against journalists are proof of the democratic process at work in Kyrgyzstan.

"Journalists have to learn to be responsible," he says. "They have to stop thinking they are experts at everything and should stick to writing about their individual areas of specialty."

Asked why journalists must be held criminally accountable for alleged libel offences, when libel suits in most countries usually go through the civil courts, Nanayev says he is not qualified to answer.

"I, unlike you journalists," he smiles, "am not an expert in every matter, so let's leave that to the lawyers."

Elfrida Yausheva, deputy head of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, says that unfortunately, "President Akayev is very sensitive, and lately, he has been getting offended quite a lot."

She points out that Kyrgyzstan's new constitution devotes half-a-dozen pages to the rights and powers of the president, but makes scant mention of his obligations and responsibilities.

"Ordinary citizens and journalists have most of those," she notes.

Legislator Omurbek Tekebayev describes a draft bill currently before parliament which he says will guarantee true democracy in the Kyrgyz press. According to the bill, government officials will have the right to demand that any newspaper or magazine retract articles they find objectionable and give them unlimited space to write their own rebuttal. This will affect editorials as well.

Tekebayev says that in any case, "journalists are never objective since they represent the will of the newspaper owners." According to him, this bill will guarantee a plurality of opinion in every publication and prevent individual newspapers from adopting a particular editorial line.

Opposition deputy and leading Kyrgyz filmmaker Dooronbek Sadyrbayev says that at present, the government hardly lacks the means to communicate its point of view.

"Just look at our television," he says. "On Monday, it's President Akayev. On Tuesday, Mrs. Akayev. On Wednesday, President Akayev. On Thursday, Mrs. Akayev. On Friday, President Akayev. On Saturday, Mrs. Akayev. And on Sunday, it's both of them together."

Sadyrbayev says with a heavy tinge of irony that he is even willing to accept this since officially, President Akayev was recently re-elected with 70 percent of the popular vote.

"But," he says, "what about the other 30 percent? Shouldn't their voice be heard at all?"

As in Soviet times, it seems Kyrgyzstan's citizens remain safe if they stick to complaining to their friends around the kitchen table.

"But those who tell the truth as it is, those who try to go against the wind," Sadyrbayev says, alluding to Omurzakov and other journalists like him, "such people can expect a lot of unpleasantness."

(This article is one of a six-part series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)