Crossroads Asia

Insulting the President: Defamation Cases Against Local Media Move Ahead in Kyrgyzstan

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Crossroads Asia

Insulting the President: Defamation Cases Against Local Media Move Ahead in Kyrgyzstan

Similar cases against RFE/RL were dropped in May, but a local Kyrgyz media outlet remains under legal pressure.

Insulting the President: Defamation Cases Against Local Media Move Ahead in Kyrgyzstan
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Service

A court in Bishkek held three separate hearings on June 29, each relating to a different case filed by the prosecutor general against the same local media organization. ProMedia runs Zanoza, a popular online news agency, and has been accused, along with co-founder Naryn Idinov, of insulting the president in its reporting.

In total, ProMedia, Zanoza, and Idinov are facing five separate lawsuits. Idinov told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the state is seeking “moral compensation” from ProMedia to the tune of 27 million som ($392,000), of which 9 million som would come from Idinov, who is has been banned from leaving the country. The media organization’s bank accounts were frozen in March and a lien placed on Idinov’s apartment.

CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova categorized the scheduling of three different court cases for one news outlet on the same day as “harassment.”

“We call on Kyrgyz authorities to drop the charges, release all assets, and lift the travel ban against Idinov. Journalists in Kyrgyzstan must be allowed to work without fear of reprisal,” she said.

The five cases relate to what the prosecutors view as insulting reporting by Zanoza. Files viewed by CPJ cite the following:

A February 2017 report on comments that opposition leader Omurbek Tekebayev made, alleging that President Almazbek Atambayev is corrupt.

An October 2015 article that quoted former President Askar Akayev, in which he alleged that Atambayev was involved in corruption.

An October 2015 article that questioned Atambayev’s lavish lifestyle.

Two March 2017 articles that criticized the February arrest of Tekebayev.

A March 2017 news report in which former parliament member Cholpon Jakupova criticized Atambayev’s attacks on journalists.

The cases against ProMedia illustrate some of the pressure media organizations are under in Central Asia’s most press-friendly state. While neighboring Uzbekistan appears at 169th out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Kyrgyzstan holds the region’s best position: 89th.

RSF notes, with regard to Kyrgyzstan’s media environment, that “[t]here is still a great deal of self-censorship on certain subjects, such as inter-ethnic relations, and concerns are mounting in the run-up to the November 2017 presidential election.” RSF points to, as has the CPJ, President Almazbek Atambayev’s occasional tirades against media. In March, Atambayev said in a statement published on the presidential website that scolded “a bunch of allegedly independent journalists, media and politicians” for “demanding impunity to slander and throw mud at people they don’t like — above all, the popularly elected president of Kyrgyzstan.”

Atambayev even cited U.S. President Donald Trump’s favorite scapegoat for bad news: “Fake news.”

Notably, similar lawsuits which had been filed against RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, locally known as Azattyk, were dropped on the president’s request in May. RFE/RL, a U.S.  government-funded network of outlets, has a much larger (and decidedly more global) audience, and deeper pockets, than ProMedia and Zanoza.

Idinov, in his comments to CPJ, said he expected a guilty verdict.

A guilty verdict would undoubtedly feed further “self-censorship on certain subjects” mentioned by RSF.