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Kyrgyzstan: Independent Weekly 'Res Publica' Marks 10th Anniversary In Court

The Kyrgyz independent weekly "Res Publica" turned 10 years old this week. But the anniversary has been marred by lawsuits against the newspaper in two courts. Journalists and human rights activists say the lawsuits, which target the paper and its chief editor, are part of a wider clampdown on independent media in Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 21 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two court cases in Kyrgyzstan are marring the 10th anniversary of the influential independent weekly "Res Publica."

On 19 February, the Pervomai district court in the capital, Bishkek, began consideration of a lawsuit against "Res Publica" Editor in Chief Zamira Sydykova. The man who filed the suit, Aleksandr Yeliseev, says the newspaper has not complied with a previous court ruling to pay a $2,000 fine for insulting him.

The day before, a city court in Bishkek began considering an appeal filed by the same man in another case against the newspaper and Sydykova. Yeliseev is appealing a decision in December by the district court not to hear a lawsuit against the newspaper. Yeliseev says Sydykova insulted him in a commentary published in October.

The cases are a blow to "Res Publica," Kyrgyzstan's first independent newspaper. Because of its legal problems, the paper has not been printed since January.

Sydykova says the cases are politically motivated and designed to silence the newspaper's criticism of government policy: "This case is connected with the authority only, because there was nothing about Yeliseev in the article."

Yeliseev and the government deny any political motivation and say they are simply following the laws of the country.

This is only the latest in a series of problems for Sydykova. In 1995, she was banned from journalism for 18 months after being accused of slandering Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev. In 1997, she spent time in a labor camp for her newspaper's expose of abuses at a state-run gold mine. After her release, she was banned from work in journalism for another 18 months.

The court cases are more complicated than they initially appear.

Yeliseev is a former member of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights, a watchdog group that monitors freedom of the press in the country. He would normally be expected to support the rights of publications like "Res Publica" to print what they deem to be newsworthy.

Ramazan Dyryldaev is the chairman of the Kyrgyz Committee for Human Rights who, because of legal problems, now lives in Vienna. Dyryldaev says Yeliseev was dismissed from the committee because of alleged connections to the Kyrgyz secret service. Dyryldaev says he believes Yeliseev is still acting under orders from the authorities.

Dyryldaev says the court cases are part of a wider clampdown on the country's independent media. Speaking through an interpreter, he explains: "The situation of mass media is [very] difficult because at the moment there is no independent mass media. Only pro-government mass media is functioning."

In January, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev signed a decree that, in effect, halts the work of any independent publishing house on the territory of Kyrgyzstan.

Dyryldaev says this concentrates all publishing in the hands of state-owned publishing house Uchkun. He says the decree ended plans by the U.S. and the European Union to increase the number of independent publishers.

"That situation envisaged that no independent printing house could work on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. That meant that no international organization could have anything printed on the republic's territory," Dyryldaev says. "The U.S. and the EC [European Commission] have planned to start independent publications in Kyrgyzstan. They wanted to organize -- to set up -- independent print shops. So now it's impossible."

Shortly after the decree, Uchkun stopped printing the independent paper "Moya Stolitsa-Novosti," saying the newspaper had not signed a print contract for 2002. In late January, Uchkun's president sued the newspaper for allegedly defaming the honor and dignity of the publisher.

When "Res Publica" began printing "Moya Stolitsa-Novosti" materials, Uchkun stopped printing it, as well. In a joint statement, the chief editors of seven independent newspapers protested the move, saying the printing house had returned to Soviet-style censorship.

Okmotpress -- the presidential press service -- denies that the decision not to print the papers is politically motivated. It also says the lawsuits are being conducted in full accordance with the country's laws.

The situation of the Kyrgyz media has attracted little attention internationally. In January, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones visited Bishkek and met with Kyrgyz journalists.

She devoted much of her speech to thanking Kyrgyzstan for allowing U.S. forces to be stationed there for use in Afghanistan. As for the media situation, she said Washington will continue to support independent media and freedom of speech in the country.

(The Kyrgyz Service's Narynbek Idinov contributed to this report.)