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Alisher Saipov: Journalist, Activist, Inspiration

Alisher Saipov
Alisher Saipov
I first met Alisher Saipov in May 2007, less than six months before he was murdered by an unidentified gunman.

Of course, I already knew him well by reputation before our meeting at the Bishkek office of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. He was one of a group of bright, young Kyrgyz journalists who devoted themselves passionately to strengthening Kyrgyz civil society after the 2005 Tulip Revolution. Although he was an ethnic Uzbek who worked relentlessly to expose abuses by the government of Uzbekistan, he spoke fluent Kyrgyz and made a profound contribution to the postrevolutionary development of his native country.

During our conversation, Saipov and I laughed and joked. He was bright, energetic, charismatic. We had a good-natured exchange of some old Soviet-era ethnic jokes, and it was clear that he was not enslaved by old prejudices. He was a model representative of the younger generation, people raised after the collapse of the Soviet Union and eagerly taking advantage of all the new opportunities presented by the end of censorship and the expansion of the Internet.

Saipov created his own Uzbek-language newspaper, "Siyosat" (Politics), in early 2007. When it launched in February, it had a print run of 1,000 copies, many of which he smuggled across the border into Uzbekistan. It was printing 5,000 copies when he was killed, thanks in large measure to its growing popularity among residents of southern Kyrgyzstan who could read Uzbek.

He also contributed to RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, the Voice of America's Uzbek Service, and the BBC World Service. He was something of an aspiring statesman and publicist who brought the international community's attention to the complex political, social, religious, and economic issues of the densely populated, multiethnic Ferghana Valley, which straddles Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Considering all that he accomplished, it is hard to imagine that Saipov would only be 27 if he were alive today.

Slipping Backward

In the year since Saipov was killed, Kyrgyzstan has endured some disturbing developments. Two independent newspapers, "Alibi" and "De Facto," have been closed down in connection with politically motivated complaints: In both cases, a son of President Kurmanbek Bakiev's brother was the plaintiff. Also, an independent television station in Jalal-Abad was temporarily forced off the air because of a suspicious rent dispute.

In addition, the country's newly adopted law on broadcasting has been viewed as another setback for the Kyrgyz media. The long-promised transformation of the state-controlled Kyrgyz national broadcasting company into a genuine public broadcaster remains stalled. Reporters Without Borders has reduced Kyrgyzstan's press-freedom rating by one point.

Saipov's widow, Nazokat, with their infant daughter, Zulaiha
For all these reasons and more, Kyrgyz journalists and activists are rallying around the legacy of Alisher Saipov in order to advance the causes of democratization and liberalization in Kyrgyzstan and beyond. They embrace his dedication to developing independent media and civil society throughout the Ferghana region and realize that the long-term development of democracy in Kyrgyzstan is threatened by the influence of neighboring authoritarian regimes.

Time Running Out

The Kyrgyz government's failure to press the investigation into Saipov's murder remains a sore point, however.

On October 23, Kyrgyz Deputy Interior Minister Jengish Jakypov told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service that the investigation was still open. But local activists continue to suspect that the absence of any progress is the result of secret cooperation between the security agencies of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, they charge, no one will ever be held to account for Saipov's murder.

Saipov's father, Avas Saipov, told RFE/RL the same day that he still has faith in President Bakiev's pledge to take personal control over the investigation and make sure it is brought to a quick and successful conclusion.

I still have faith in this promise, too. But the clock is ticking, and our trust in the Kyrgyz government's commitment to justice in this case grows a bit more threadbare with each passing day.

Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev (Chorotegin) is the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL