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Kyrgyzstan Keeps RFE/RL Off The Air, Demands Program Review

State broadcaster chief Eshimkanov said Kyrgyzstan would not honor Azattyk's contract as it is.
BISHKEK (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz authorities have said that Radio Azattyk, RFE/RL's popular Kyrgyz-language service, will not be restored to the airwaves unless its programs are submitted to the government for prior approval. RFE/RL was taken off the air in October.

The head of Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Corporation (UTRK), Melis Eshimkanov, said RFE/RL programs were "too negative and too critical" of the government.

He was speaking on December 15 after the Kyrgyz government and officials from RFE/RL and U.S. international broadcasting met in Bishkek in an effort to restore Azattyk programs to the airwaves.

At a news conference held after the talks, Julia Ragona, chief broadcast operations officer for RFE/RL, called for the restoration of the suspended broadcast.

"We are committed to providing information, perspectives, and news to Kyrgyzstan that might not otherwise be available, and we are proud and pleased to be able to continue doing that, once these issues are resolved," Ragona said.

Until October 8, Azattyk's TV and radio programs were heard and seen by nearly half the Kyrgyz population. Azattyk broadcast three hours of radio programming each day and produced two weekly prime-time television news shows, "Inconvenient Questions" and the youth-oriented "Azattyk Plus."

On December 6, the Kyrgyz authorities gave their first public acknowledgement that RFE/RL had been taken off the air, saying that the broadcasts were suspended because RFE/RL had breached contracts.

The authorities also announced the suspension of the BBC's Kyrgyz service on December 1, reportedly on contractual grounds. The BBC returned to the airwaves in Kyrgyzstan on December 12.

Censorship Rejected

Eshimkanov said on December 15 that Kyrgyzstan will not honor its current contract with RFE/RL now, nor when it expires at the end of the year, unless Azattyk clears its radio and TV reports with the government in advance -- or "guarantees" they will not be offensive.

Eshimkanov also said that powerful Kyrgyz figures are behind the decision to keep Radio Azattyk off the air.

RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin said the move may force Radio Azattyk to put its broadcasts exclusively on shortwave frequencies for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those broadcasts are expected to begin on December 16.

"We expected more from a country trying to prove its reformist credentials in the region," Gedmin said.

Jeffrey Hirschberg of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees U.S. international broadcasting, said the proposed censorship conditions are "unacceptable."

The Organization For Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE) has called on the Kyrgyz authorities to restore RFE/RL and BBC programs to the airwaves.

The OSCE's media-freedom representative, Miklos Haraszti, said both broadcasters were a "reputable public-service source of information for Kyrgyz society" and that "their suspension would be a loss to pluralism."