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Kyrgyzstan: Rights Groups Assail Restrictive New Media Law

Will President Bakiev keep his pledge to ensure media independence? (RFE/RL) More than three years since Kyrgyzstan's "People's Revolution" brought a new president to power, press freedom advocates are questioning whether President Kurmanbek Bakiev is as committed to a free media as he pledged during his 2005 campaign.

Bakiev had promised to give full independence to the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Corporation as well as all other state-funded media outlets in Kyrgyzstan. But on June 4, Bakiev signed amendments to the country’s press law that appear to jeopardize the independence of the media.

In a statement on June 16, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the amendments "put many media under threat." RSF said part of the law "gives the president the power to appoint the executive director of state-run TV and radio KTR," which effectively "wrecks efforts undertaken to make [KTR] a public and not a state company."

Prior to the amendments, a 15-member supervisory council had governed KTR, with the president, parliament, and civic groups each selecting five board members.

Bakyt Orunbekov, a member of the supervisory council, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law is an obstacle to further media reform. "This law is a huge impediment on the path to realizing the idea of creating public television," Orunbekov says. "Moreover, this has a negative influence on democratic processes and freedom of speech, which until recently Kyrgyzstan was praised for having."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last month urged Bakiev to veto the media bill, saying it "obliterates Kyrgyzstan’s attempt at broadcasting reform.”

The CPJ had objected to other changes in the media bill, such as legislation requiring that "half the programming carried by any television or radio station must be self-produced and in the Kyrgyz language," and a change that "enables state agencies alone to revoke, sever, or annul broadcasting licenses for various technical violations."

The CPJ noted that "those penalties could be sanctioned solely by the state agencies; approval from the Kyrgyz courts would no longer be required."

Marat Tokoev, the leader of Journalists, a Kyrgyz NGO, tells RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the new law could spell the end of some independent Kyrgyz television and radio stations.

"This law represents a step backward," Tokoev says. "Television channels and radio stations cannot endure the regulations included in it. That means that we are creating obstacles to the development of the [state television and radio] company. It is possible that many television channels and radio stations will be closed down."

Two television channels in the southern Osh area, Osh TV and Mezon TV, lodged appeals against the new law that were rejected by the Constitutional Court. Both stations broadcast in the Uzbek language to a large ethnic-Uzbek audience in the Osh area and across the border in Uzbekistan. Since the broadcasts are not in the state language of Kyrgyzstan, the channels fear they will be taken off the air.

Not Only Broadcasters

Tokoev could also have mentioned the print media. At least one independent newspaper is encountering troubles not seen in Kyrgyzstan since the 2005 change of power.

On June 14, Kyrgyz authorities raided the office of the independent newspaper "De Facto," confiscating the weekly's computers. The raid was troubling to many observers partly because such moves against the media have been rare since Kyrgyz independence in 1991.

The raid is merely one of several recent events in Kyrgyzstan that are raising concerns about the government's commitment to democratic principles.

A Kyrgyz court ruled that "De Facto" had printed libelous information and issued a warrant for the raid after the newspaper's June 12 edition alleged that an official of the Kyrgyz Taxes and Duties Committee was involved in corrupt activities. In the article, author Zamira Moldoeva appealed to Kyrgyz authorities to bring the official to justice.

Cholpon Orozobekova, the weekly’s editor in chief, said the article’s author is prepared to testify in court against the allegations and the raid. She added that the subpoena against the reporter is an attempt to silence the independent newspaper.

“De Facto” was earlier fined 1 million soms ($27,600) on June 2 for printing an article that alleged Bakiev's nephew was involved in a traffic accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian.

Nongovernmental organizations in Kyrgyzstan are showing their support for “De Facto.” On June 17, the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society said in a statement that the legal case against the weekly is politically motivated and aimed at the "elimination of the free press and the intimidation of journalists."

Culture and Information Minister Sultan Raev urged patience, telling RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the matter is not yet settled and that the president and civic groups can still propose changes to the newly signed law.

"The decree of the president was signed with current realities in mind," Raev says. "For it to be implemented there are still some unresolved questions on which the president has already made recommendations to the culture and justice ministries. We are working currently to honor these recommendations."

Bakiev says the new law is still open for debate, and a special commission has been appointed to study proposed changes.

But RSF, among others, questions that effort. “We do not understand why the president should sign a law which he knows is unsatisfactory and then ask ministers to study proposals from civil society," the media watchdog said in its statement.

Director Tynchtykbek Tchoroev and correspondent Kubat Chekirov of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report

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