Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev channeled U.S. President Donald Trump over the weekend, calling out journalists and the media for spreading lies, slander, and “fake news.” The remarks, which were also posted to the official presidential website, illustrate Atambayev’s deep frustration with the present state of domestic political discourse.
In recent days a handful of lawsuits have been filed against two Ata-Meken lawyers and two media outlets. In addition, the editor of a Russian media outlet — Grigory Mikhailov, of Regnum — has been deported. It’s not clear if Mikhailov’s deportation is tied to the overall crunch on media stemming from reporting the president doesn’t like. If not — of the deportation is tied to some other issue — it’s timing is nonetheless demonstrably poor.
First, some notes on the lawsuits and then back to Atambayev’s parroting of Trumpisms.
As I noted last week, the deterioration of cordial relations between Atambayev and his administration and jailed MP Omurbek Tekebayev and his Ata-Meken party, parliament’s smallest contingent, included the trading of lawsuits:
…the two sides of the Tekebayev-Atambayev battle are trading lawsuits — Ata-Mekan against Atambayev for insulting the party and the state prosecutor general against Tekebayev’s lawyers, allegedly in response to their March 1 claim that the cargo of the plane which crashed at Manas International Airport in early January belonged to Atambayev.
It seems that the government’s 10 million som suit against Ata Meken’s lawyers — Kanatbek Aziz and Taalaygul Toktakunova — for their comments regarding the ownership of the cargo in the plane that crashed in early January also included two media outlets as co-defendants. RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz bureau, Azattyk, and Zanoza.kg are named for reporting on the statements given by Ata-Meken’s lawyers. But as EurasiaNet points out, “It is unclear why only these two outlets have been singled out for this treatment, considering that most media in the country at least alluded to the allegations, which were first made in the press center of a leading news agency.” The government is seeking 10 million som from Azattyk and 3 million son from Zanoza.kg as well as retractions of the offending stories. Hearings are expected to begin March 16, according to 24.kg.
A second suit was filed against the two media organizations also seeking 13 million som, divided as in the first suit, and retraction of published stories. The second suit, according to 24.kg’s reporting relates to a report that Omurbek Tekebayev was in Cyprus recently to meet with former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and former MP Sadyr Zhaparov. Notably, Tekebayev seems to have denied these reports, but the inevitable question (apparently the source of reputational damage to the president) was raised by Azattyk and Zanoza.kg: if Tekebayev did meet with the two exiled Kyrgyz politicians, why? As I wrote last week, among the swirl of rumors is that Atambayev is stashing cash on Cyprus and the implication is that Tekebayev was in Cyprus to suss out the situation. Hearings for this suit, according to 24.kg, are expected to begin March 15.
These lawsuits demonstrate one of the difficulties of journalism in Central Asia. In basic terms, Azattyk and Zanoza.kg are being sued for reporting statements made by the legitimate spokespeople of a major political party at the heart of a huge domestic scandal. It is not for the journalists to decide who is telling the truth and both sides — Atambayev and Tekebayev — have motivation to fudge the facts. The two major media outlets could not have avoided reporting on what Ata-Meken’s lawyers said was the government’s motivation for arresting their leader.
Atambayev has been the target of heavy coverage since last summer because his strong support and push for controversial constitutional changes. That his patience for criticism seems to be wearing thin is obvious from the statement he made Saturday.
“Lately in Kyrgyzstan a bunch of allegedly independent journalists, media and politicians are in fact demanding impunity to slander and throw mud at people they don’t like — above all, the popularly elected president of Kyrgyzstan,” Atambayev said.
Atambayev went on to describe a “campaign of lies,” which has intensified since last summer.
“I would like to recall that the main responsibility and the right of journalists and the media – is bringing to the people honest and truthful information, objective facts, not to create fake news, lies, and slander,” he said. Atambayev then explained that the people of Kyrgyzstan need to understand that the “true purpose” of these “supposedly independent” journalists, media, and politicians is destabilization ahead of November’s presidential elections.
This line of argument is hardly convincing. Arguably, Atambayev himself has injected a degree of chaos into the Kyrgyz political scene when he had Tekebayev arrested and before that, when he pushed to have the constitutional altered.