The country failed for the second year running in 2003 to live up to its good regional reputation. A new national constitution brought further curbs on press freedom and one of the main independent newspapers was forced to close because of legal harassment by the authorities.
Journalists, government opponents and human rights activists who regularly criticised the authorities were increasingly harassed in 2003. Legal and bureaucratic pressure on the media, NGOs and rights organisations was illustrated by the enforced closure of the opposition newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti after being fined 77,000 euros in more than 30 lawsuits.
President Askar Akayev announced his version of "basic journalistic ethics" on 6 November, the eve of the country’s official press freedom day. He said "true journalism" should work for the good of the country and support the interests of the nation and the state.
Despite strong opposition protests and the doubts of international bodies, a referendum in February confirmed Akayev in his post until 2005 and approved a new national constitution, which increased civil servants’ protection from revelations of illegality or corruption by making it easier for them to sue journalists for possessing or publishing "false news."
The country’s Media Council, a regulatory body set up by the government in October, was much criticised by journalists for its lack of legitimacy but nevertheless launched a campaign on 7 November to decriminalise defamation, currently punishable by up to three years in prison. It also called for higher procedural fees to discourage the flood of complaints being filed against newspapers by officials at all government levels.
The monopoly of the state printing firm Uchkun, which was used a means of pressure on privately-owned media, was broken at the end of the year when an independent printers was set up with foreign funding.
A journalist killed
The body of journalist Ernis Nazalov was found on 15 September 2003 near the Uvan irrigation canal in Osh province, near the Uzbekistan border. A month earlier, apparently for family reasons, he had left the capital, Bishkek, where he wrote about social and cultural topics for the newspaper Kyrgyz Rukhu. He had worked in Osh in 2002 for the newspaper Tsivindem, which later closed. He was beaten up on 26 August by thugs in Osh who stole his bag containing a small amount of money and some important documents, which Alisher Toksonbayev, head of a local legal aid centre for the media, said may have been compromising material he planned to publish. After the theft, Nazalov, 25, complained of being obstructed in his work. When his body was found, several police spokesmen said his death was an accident and refused to open a criminal enquiry. The interior ministry said on 30 September he had drowned. But the autopsy report, obtained by the legal aid centre, said his body had many bruises and scratches, including on his head. Tests could not say if fluid found in his body came from the canal. His father, Narkul Nazalov, was only able to get a copy of the autopsy report two and half months after the death. Toksonbayev wrote to regional prosecutor Abdygany Sheripbayev on 20 October asking for a murder enquiry, which was opened a month later. By the end of the year, no evidence had emerged that the journalist’s death was related to his work.
Two journalists physically attacked
Alexandra Chernykh, of the independent daily Moya Stolitsa, was beaten about the head by two thugs in the street in Bishkek on 17 January 2003 on her way home with her 11-year-old son. Her mother, Rina Prizhivoit, head of the paper’s political desk, had made many investigations of political corruption, including in President Akayev’s family.
Abduvakhab Moniev, of the weekly Agym, was beaten on the head by two men in Osh (near the Uzbek border) on 16 October. He said the attack may have been because of his work, especially his criticism of the authorities in the newspaper Jany Zaman Akykaty on 7 October. The attackers were not arrested.
A journalist threatened
Ulugbek Babakulov, of the independent weekly Tribuna, said on 9 July 2003 that aides of member of parliament Bayaman Erkinbayev threatened him after he wrote an article about the business activities of the MP’s sister, Jarkynai.
Harassment and obstruction
The new national constitution, which came into effect on 20 February 2003, guaranteed the right to freedom of expression and to gather and put out material through the media, but some parts of it reduce press freedom. Section 6 of article 16 says all citizens are legally protected against publication of "false news" about them and members of their family. People who are victims of this have the right to ask for seizure and withdrawal of all offending material and receive damages in cases of gathering, possessing and publishing it.
A Bishkek court dismissed on 28 April an appeal against a 7,500-euro damages award on 15 January against the weekly Kyrgyz Ordo to deputy chief customs inspector Aydarbek Duishaliev for an article in 2002 accusing him of forging his diploma. The paper, whose assets were frozen and its property seized, stopped appearing in January.
Alexander Kim, editor of the independent daily Moya Stolitsa-Novosti (formerly Moya Stolitsa), announced on 11 June that the paper, which regularly exposed political corruption, was closing because it was bankrupt. It was fined over 77,000 euros in damages and fines in the course of more than 30 lawsuits. It stopped appearing at the end of May after the seizure of 15,000 copies of an issue containing articles about President Akayev’s brother-in-law and the legal harassment of the paper by the state printing firm Uchkun after it failed to pay several fines. The Lenin court in Bishkek had ordered confiscation of the paper’s property on 20 January and the freezing of its accounts. However the staff then registered the paper under a new name, Moya Stolitsa-Novosti.
Parliament passed a law on 26 June to "protect the activities" of President Akayev. Article 3, banning any action undermining the legal immunity of the president and his family, suggested that critical media were the target. Article 4 defined the prosecutor-general as the president’s legal representative and obliged him to file a complaint about any published material that harmed the president’s reputation.
Mamasharip Tullayev, a journalist with Batken Tany, organ of the Batken regional government in western Kyrgyzstan, was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence at the end of June for an article on 13 October 2002, during parliamentary elections, saying former regional chief Dastan Berdiev was corrupt. The paper, which was fined 1,300 euros, was unable to appear for several weeks since it was funded by the government and had to wait for state money to pay the fine.
The supreme court rejected on 11 August a lawsuit by businessman Kybanychbek Tezekbayev against the independent weekly Delo N for 11,000 euros in damages for allegedly seriously offending his "national pride" and dignity by spelling the words Kyrgyz and Kygyzstan in a Russian rather than Kyrgyz way and not obeying the spelling rules laid down in the national constitution.
Tynchtykbek Chorotegin, head of Radio Azzatyk, was stopped by Uzbek customs officers at the Dostuk border crossing on 10 November as he was taking photos there. They confiscated his video camera but returned it when he told them he did not want to cross the border.