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Kyrgyzstan: Editor Honored For Courageous Journalism

Zamira Sydykova, editor of Kyrgyzstan's opposition weekly Res Publica, has received an award for courage in journalism. The international spotlight fixes on Kyrgyzstan weeks before the presidential poll, at a time when many feel the country has reneged on its democratic promises.

New York, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a packed ballroom on Tuesday (Oct. 10) in midtown Manhattan, Zamira Sydykova, a petite Kyrgyz woman with pulled-back black hair and a single strand of pearls, accepted the "Courage in Journalism" Award for fearless reporting in the face of repression.

Sydykova was one of four recipients of this year's award. Winners of the 11th Annual Courage In Journalism Awards -- a prize sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation -- receive $2,000 in cash and a crystal eagle trophy.

The award also extends to embattled journalists a conspicuous sign of support from the international community.

The New York Times' Janet Robinson, honorary co-chair of the event, said that the award-winning journalists displayed "grace under pressure" in filing from such flash points as Kosova, East Timor, and Chechnya and from the relatively obscure media battleground of Kyrgyzstan.

"Their struggles and their successes in the face of death threats, incarceration, and armed conflict define the word courage."

Sydykova's story begins in 1992, when she founded Res Publica, a weekly newspaper, to help her country's fledgling democracy. She said that 70 years of totalitarian rule had made freedom a difficult concept for Kyrgyz people to grasp and she hoped to change that.

Res Publica earned a reputation for its candid reporting: it investigated a gold mining company's squalid working conditions, questioned Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's vacation homes in Turkey and Switzerland, and published workers' petitions that struck at powerful interests in the country.

And as the Kyrgyz government backed away from its political and social reforms, the opposition press faced increasing pressure. Kyrgyzstan is one of the few countries in the world where libel remains a criminal offense.

The Committee to Protect Journalists outlined Res Publica's problems in its 2000 Annual Report. In 1993, the government's launched a campaign to silence the newspaper. In 1995, Sydykova wrote about Akayev's foreign bank accounts and lavish vacation homes. For her alleged slander, Sydykova was banned from journalism for 18 months. In 1997, she was charged with criminal libel for publishing articles that exposed shoddy working conditions and state-level corruption in a government gold mining company. After spending a hard time in a labor camp, she was released -- but banned for another 18 months from journalism.

After receiving her award on Tuesday, Sydykova recalled her incarceration -- in which she was separated from her two young sons -- as one of the most trying moments of her career. But she said she became emboldened by the protests on her behalf.

"And I probably would never have been released if it had not been for several women, strangers really, who organized a hunger strike in front of the presidential palace. This went on for 2 1/2 months. This is when I understood that people needed free press and that my work was not in vain. People wanted to know the truth. They needed my newspaper."

Res Publica's battle shows a new trend in silencing independent media -- using legal action to stymie government critics. In 1999, on the eve of Kyrgyzstan's parliamentary elections, the libel suits and bureaucratic pressure mounted -- a development that local journalists call a deliberate governmental strategy to weaken the opposition press.

Early this year, Res Publica was again found guilty of libel and saddled with a fine equivalent to the paper's entire budget. When she heard about the award, Sydykova donated her prize money to helping pay her paper's fines.

Her story also prompted a major Western media executive to lend a helping hand.

Time Warner President Richard Parsons said he was so moved by her struggle that Time Warner/AOL would fund Res Publica for the next year.

Parsons said that most Americans take freedom of the press for granted. Nevertheless, events in remote countries can have ripple effects on the United States -- as the events in Yugoslavia recently illustrated.

"The fate of Res Publica involves the fate of Kyrgyzstan, but it doesn't end there. I think we have to be clear about this point. The always dangerous often lonely struggle of journalists like Zamira Sydykova belongs to anyone who believes that our destiny is tied to securing the basic human rights of people everywhere, whoever they are."

The International Women's Media Foundation also honored the courage of an American reporter who has covered Kosova, East Timor, and Chechnya for The Sunday Times in London. Marie Colvin's stories show the human side of war and often uncover truths often obscured by official reports.

In Kosova, Colvin said she learned the farce of the phrase: "precision bombing." Traveling with the Kosovo Liberation Army, she experienced "World War I conditions": mud, cold, fire fights in the forests, and mass graves in villages.

In Chechnya, she declined to use the Russian army's journalist escorts and decided to focus her reporting on what she described as the indiscriminate bombing of civilians.

"Every single bombing and artillery barrage was reported as an 'attack on the terrorists.' I was there. It was on villages. And these were the people it affected."

Also honored were:

Agnes Nindorera, who works for Studio Ijambo in Burundi and also files reports for Voice of America and Agence France Presse.

Flora Lewis of the New York Times Syndicate who received the 2000 IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award.