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Kyrgyzstan: Government Steps Up Harassment Of The Media

Prague, 9 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Almaz Radio, an independent radio station in Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek, is back on the air after having been closed down last month by the government. But only on a provisional basis.

Aida Alieva, deputy director of the radio, told RFE/RL by phone today that the National Agency on Communications (NAC) issued a permit allowing the station to resume broadcasting three days ago (March 6). She said the permit is temporary, requiring the station to complete documents for re-registration. The compulsory annual re-registration process takes usually 2 to 3 months.

The Almaz Radio was forced off the air in late February by a NAC decision. The NAC was set up last October as a part of the presidential administration.

Taalai Eshaliev, head of one of the NAC department, told RFE/RL last week (March 2) that the decision had been taken "on technical grounds."

But Rustam Koshmuratov, director of the Almaz Radio, told RFE/RL that the agency may be testing its power and if it achieves a success, there will be more suppressive actions against independent media in the country.

Indeed, the Central Asian Association of Electronic Mass Media(ANESMI) said in a letter to the government protesting the Almaz Radio closure that the independent VOSST tele-radio station in Bishkek had also been shot down for 36 hours in mid-February (16). ANESMI further said that the independent Mezon TV in the southern city of Osh has since last May been waiting for a license to broadcast, despite the Government Committee on Radio Frequencies' (GCRF) recommendation and the payment of a license fee. ANESMI called these actions discriminatory against non-government mass media.

ANESMI says in its letter that the in closing down the Almaz Radio the Kyrgyz government violated both the Civil Code of Kyrgyzstan and the Law on Mass Media. According to the Mass Media Law, any media institution could be closed only in two cases: if its founder decides to do it or by the decision of court.

The Almaz' Koshmuratov said that at least three more independent radio stations in Bishkek have still not been re-registered for 1998. They are radio stations Max-M and Delta and TV-radio station Piramida. But only Almaz Radio has been closed.

Koshmuratov told RFE/RL that some officials from the NAC suggested to him privately that he should exclude all political programs from his broadcasting. According to Koshmuratov, there have been very few political programs in Almaz broadcasting. However the radio re-broadcasts some programs of western radios and it took part last year in a public campaign protesting the jailing of Zamira Sydykova, chief editor of the Independent Res Publica weekly. Sydykova was accused of libeling government officials and sentenced to 18 month of penal colony last June, but the following month the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan ruled to release her.

Radio Almaz is the first independent radio station in Kyrgyzstan, founded by Rustam Koshmuratov in July 1992. It began broadcasting in Bishkek but subsequently has expanded to cover several other towns. It cooperates with several western radios. Koshmuratov said that he had helped to open an independent radio station in neighboring Uzbekistan, the Radio Grant, which began operation last December.

Several independent newspapers, TV and radio stations have been founded in Kyrgyzstan recently. But, according to local observers, press freedom is being increasingly restricted. Independent media, which helped democrats to defeat the communist government in October 1990, have continued to criticize the new government, and this government has taken actions against them. Several independent papers have been closed either by court orders or direct decisions of the Ministry of Justice.

Several Kyrgyz journalists were sentenced to different prison terms in 1995-1997, provoking protests by both local and international human rights organizations.

Last December the Kyrgyz presidential office announced that in the future no journalist would be sentenced to jail on charges of insulting the government. But case of the Almaz Radio may signal the beginning of a new method of official harassment of the independent media.