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Kyrgyzstan30 January 2006

Media shaken by threats and intimidation

Reporters Without Borders has expressed alarm about a wave of threats and intimidation which has been unleashed against the media in Kyrgyzstan over past few months.

Disturbing incidents occurring in the past few weeks include raids on media premises by criminal groups, an arson attempt against the editorial office of a major daily, buyout bids by fictitious private companies and sudden management changes.

Journalists are on the alert against any attempt to resume control by those close to exiled president, Askar Akayev. Meanwhile the head of state elected in July 2005, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, is attempting to extend his influence by making the state a majority shareholder in broadcast groups. It is not known who was responsible for recent attacks against newspaper head offices.

“The hopes raised by the people’s uprising last March have not born fruit,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said. “Family members of the former president are still powerful and continue to control sections of the media.”

“The State continues to hold a majority of shares in most press groups and is not prepared to make any concessions. The media do not feel safe from attack by criminal groups. We urge the Kyrgyzstan authorities to do their utmost to guarantee the protection of journalists and the media,” the organisation added.

Editorial staff on privately-owned Pyramid TV were abruptly informed on 8 December 2005 that their company had just been bought by a mysterious company called “Invest-Media”, with declared capital of 20.5 euros. The leading independent channel thus passed from the hands of Aidar Akayev, the son of the former president, and his company “Areopag” into those of an unknown proprietor. But one of them had the same name as a relative of Mairam Akayeva, wife of the ousted former president.

Two days later, a gang of about 20 people raided the station’s offices, cut off the electricity, blocking entrances to the building and destroying doors and windows. Parliament immediately opened an investigation into these incidents. Journalists demonstrated in front of the assembly on 12 December in a silent protest for press freedom. They were backed by politicians and public figures.

Journalists on the public consortium National Television and Radio Broadcast Corporation (NTRK) began a hunger strike on 27 January 2006 in protest against the appointment as deputy director of a figure close to the former president, involved in a financial scandal, Bayama Sutenova.

The consequences were immediate: the public channel was the only one to report several days late on a serious crisis that recently hit the Kyrgyzstan secret services (SNB, formerly KGB), accused by the Prime Minister of incompetence and having links to criminal gangs.

In the latest act of intimidation, the country’s biggest daily Vetchernyi Bichkek was the target of an arson attack overnight on 29-30 January. The newspaper’s management accused controversial and influential businessman, Ryspek Akmatbayev, of being behind it. The businessman, who is suspected of being a gangland boss, has recently been the subject of critical articles in the daily.

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