In after an election in October of 2017, Kyrgyzstan’s former President Almazbek Atambayev peacefully ceded power to the newly elected President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, marking the first peaceful transition of power between two democratically elected leaders in all of Central Asia. But, while Kyrgyzstan prides itself as a leader in democratic development in the region, recent policy of media suppression, by both the former and current president, indicates that the young democracy is already facing major threats.
Kyrgyzstan has a poor history of protecting freedom of speech. After the 2009 election, journalists critical of then-President Kurmanbek Bakiyev were routinely harassed and intimidated, and one journalist was thrown from a sixth floor high-rise with his hands and feet bound. Bakiyev didn’s stay in office long, as an uprising in 2010 forced him to flee to Kazakhstan and the Belarus, where he remains in exile.
After the uprising in April of 2010, Atambayev was elected, and it appeared that freedom of the press might be upheld. Indeed, the situation dramatically improved, and journalists generally felt safe doing their jobs and reporting accurately in Kyrgyzstan. This period of free press, at least compared the situation during Bakiyev’s tenure, remained until the 2017 election.
When Kyrgyzstan entered an election year, President Atambayev began using his power to suppress negative media and intimidate news outlets. Supporting Jeenbekov in the election, Atambayev began suing media outlets and journalists for millions of Kyrgyz som, equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In addition, he brought fraud and corruption charges against outspoken political opponents. In combination, these policies served to intimidate the media at large into self-censorship, or risk being bankrupted.
Freedom of the press is widely recognized as an integral part of a true democracy. In his paper Stealth Authoritarianism, Ozan Varol outlines strategies used by leaders seeking to consolidate power while maintaining the appearance of Democracy. He noted the importance of the free press, and the damage that libel lawsuits do to a democracy, not only by bankrupting certain critical media outlets, but also by encouraging self-censorship throughout the country. Other news organizations will refrain from publishing anything critical of the government, for fear that they will face a similar fate.
Not only is such action undemocratic on its face, as outlets are singled out and punished for voicing their political opinions, but it also prevents the dissemination of information, allowing the government to further consolidate power with less fear of public resistance.
The April Revolution, as the 2010 uprising that ousted Bakiyev and led to Atambayev’s election is called, is still fresh in the minds of many Kyrgyz citizens, as is the 2005 Tulip Revolution, which gave Bakiyev the presidency. Limits on freedom of the press prevent the public dissemination of information, and could be a prelude to more power consolidation under President Jeenbekov.
Overall, Freedom House rates Kyrgyzstan’s media as “Not Free,” giving it an overall score of 67/100 in both 2016 and 2017, down from its ranking from even the 2010 era, when Bakiyev was in power. This analysis partially contradicts that of journalists in the country, who agree that the situation is worse now than it was since Atambayev first took office in 2010, but not as bad as during Bakiyev’s rule. Either way, Freedom House has labeled Kyrgyzstan’s press as “not free” every year since 2002. So, while the quality of the government’s interaction with the media may fluctuate, there is little question that the country lacks complete freedom of press.
But, Jeenbekov has made recent strides in the area of freedom of the press. On March 6, 2018, he invited 40 representatives of the Kyrgyz national media to the state residence. There, he answered questions about law enforcement and judicial reform, corruption, and freedom of speech for more than two hours. While such a step may simply be an attempt to improve his public appearance, many journalists consider the meeting itself to be a good sign, and hope that Jeenbekov keeps his word about protecting freedom of speech.
So far, he has dropped a suit against an online news outlet which he was suing for moral damages, and which he won after winning the election. The site published an apology and a retraction prompting Jeenbekov to drop his claim; still, it is impossible to know if he would have done so without these concessions, and the very threat of a court case is effective enough to deter Kyrgyz media outlets from publishing negative articles.
In the end, it seems that Kyrgyzstan has taken a step backwards in terms of freedom of the press. While the violence against journalists present while Bakiyev was in power has largely subsided, Jeenbekov continues his predecessors’ tradition of threatening media outlets with civil suits in order to silence opposing views. Freedom of press is a key pillar of democracy, and backsliding in this area implies a grave risk of democratic backsliding in the country as a whole.
**Photo credit Pixabay**