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Kyrgyzstan13 June 2003

Libel suit fines bankrupt independent newspaper, force closure

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the relentless harassment of the independent daily Moya Stolitsa-Novosti by means of libel suits by government officials, which yesterday forced editor Alexander Kim to announce its closure because of bankruptcy. The newspaper had been ordered to pay more than 77,000 euros in damages and fines in the course of 31 lawsuits over two years.

"This closure was deliberate," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "The authorities wanted to gag this newspaper because it was in the habit of denouncing cases of corruption implicating the president’s associates," he explained. "No one should be fooled by the pseudo-legal method used - it was a clear case of censorship in a country that poses as the good boy of Central Asia as regards press freedom."

Two of the sentences that helped break the newspaper arose from complaints filed by Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev. The prime minister claimed he was libelled in an article on 2 April by the head of an NGO coalition, Mikhaïl Korsunsky, who accused him of embezzling public health funds. The case concluded with a Bishkek court fining Moya Stolitsa-Novosti 9,500 euros on 3 June.

Previously, on 25 April, the same court fined the newspaper the same amount because of any article by journalist Rina Prizhivoit on 26 November 2002 that accused close aides of the president, including the prime minister, of bringing shame on the country by their actions.

The newspaper was also fined 9,500 euros on 13 March as a result of a complaint by Merliside, a company run by the president’s son-in-law Adil Toygonbaev, about an article last year by journalist Larissa Li accusing it of tax fraud. The ombudsman, Tursubai Bakir uulu, appealed against the court’s verdict to the supreme court on 9 June on the grounds that it unjustified.

The newspaper had not appeared since 23 May, when the authorities went to a printing works in Uchkun state and confiscated15,000 copies of an issue containing articles about the president’s son-in-law and the campaign of harassment in the courts to which the newspaper has been subjected. The confiscation was ordered by a Bishkek court on the grounds of non-payment of several fines, including those imposed in the prime minister’s cases and Merliside’s. The court also ordered the seizure of the newspaper’s property and the freezing of its assets.

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