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Kyrgyzstan: Press Runs Afoul Of Libel Laws -- Part 2

Independent newspapers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are in danger of failing. The governments in both countries seek to avoid open conflict with independent media, relying instead on their judicial systems to silence critics. In this second of two features, RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at two court cases against independent newspapers in Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 8 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan once was considered an island of democracy in largely authoritarian Central Asia. Even today, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev is the only one of the five leaders of Central Asian CIS states who has not been labeled an "enemy of the press" by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But the plight of independent media in Kyrgyzstan has clearly worsened in recent years.

Sherry Rocky, the executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation, summed up the situation in a recent interview with RFE/RL.

"There are significant problems. The government really is not open to totally free media. There is a strong effort to control the media and in the last few years that effort has taken the form of using the legal system to do that."

Rocky cited the case of the Kyrgyz weekly "Res Publica," whose publication was suspended at the end of last month by a Bishkek district court for failure to pay court-levied fines. Five months before (Oct 2000), Rocky's foundation had given its "Courage in Journalism Award" to the newspaper's chief editor, Zamira Sydykova.

"Res Publica" has existed almost as long as long as Kyrgyzstan has been an independent nation. For much of that time, the paper has been in trouble with the government because of critical articles it regularly published. Sydykova herself was barred from practicing journalism for an article she wrote alleging that Akayev owned property in Switzerland and Turkey. She was later jailed for an article about the head of the country's gold-mining company.

Rocky explains that the country's libel law makes such punishment possible:

"Kyrgyzstan is one of those countries where libel is a criminal charge and not a civil charge. The legal system does not treat [libel] as a sense of accuracy. If the story is accurate or is not accurate is not the point, according to the libel laws. It's really a matter of whether an official's honor has been disparaged."

The "Res Publica" case goes back to 1998, when the paper printed a letter by several employees of the National Television and Radio Corporation criticizing Amanbek Karypkulov, the corporation's president. Karypkulov sued the paper and won his case.

In 1999, "Res Publica" ran an article about Sardarbek Botaliev. He had registered a new organization under the name "Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights" with the Ministry of Justice in April of that year, even though a Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights already existed and had registered with the ministry in 1996. BotAliyev sued the paper and won his case, too.

Both court decisions against the paper were handed down last month. "Res Publica" was fined $1,400, a substantial amount of money in Kyrgyzstan.

Sydykova was fortunate to have such money available. She told RFE/RL the paper has earlier been forced to take drastic measures to keep alive.

"Last year fines were significantly higher, about $5,000. We were forced to sell furniture, pictures, book and computers at a charity auction."

In another action against critical media, a Bishkek court on 6 March ordered the suspension of the independent newspaper "Asaba." The paper traces its origins to Soviet times, but it changed its views in the perestroika era and later became an opposition newspaper.

The owner of "Asaba", Melis Eshimkanov, ran against Akayev for the presidency in last October's election. Eshimkanov did not come close to winning, but "Asaba" was a valuable, if limited, means for opposition candidates to publicize their message. Three court cases against "Asaba" were initiated a few months before election day.

The paper lost all three cases this week, with the biggest loss coming from a libel case filed by Kyrgyzstan's Soviet-era communist leader Turdakun Usubaliyev, now an Akayev supporter. Usubaliyev charged that during the past eight years. "Asaba" had regularly portrayed him in an unfavorable light. That qualified as libel under Kyrgyz law and the court awarded Usubaliyev about $100,000.

Outside pressure by press freedom groups has had little apparent effect the diminishing press freedom in Kyrgyzstan. Sherry Rocky of the International Women's Media Foundation says the head of the U.S. media company AOL-Time-Warner was so taken with Sydykova that he gave her a grant to help support "Res Publica," which Sydykova used to pay court-imposed fines.

Rocky says she hoped that the AOL-Time-Warner grant plus her organization's award would help "Res Publica" to keep out of court.

"Sometimes when we give the Courage in Journalism Award, the government lays off the awardee a little bit because they've had all of this international exposure. But clearly that's not happening in Kyrgyzstan."

Sydykova and Eshimkulov held a joint press conference yesterday (7 March) to announce that their editorial boards will work together, with articles written for "Asaba" published in "Res Publica." Sydykova noted, however, that she has already been informed by her publishing house there may not be enough newsprint available to print her paper's next edition.

(The Kyrgyz and Russian Services contributed to this report)