Compared to its neighbors in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan enjoys press freedom. Yet biased, blackening and hypothetical information, which I call “low quality journalism,” prevails in Kyrgyzstan’s online media. To be fair, low quality journalism appears in both the Kyrgyz and Russian languages, and there are some high standard journalistic pieces among Kyrgyz online media. The bottom line remains: Kyrgyz citizens have limited access to good journalistic pieces in their native language.
The use of the Kyrgyz language is growing and so is demand for Kyrgyz language content on the Internet. The majority of news websites fall far short. Meeting this growing demand requires updating the curricula of journalism faculties and developing the professional skills of journalists. Such tasks will require assistance, but these steps are necessary for better informed Kyrgyz citizens, and fundamental for an accountable and democratic government.
The phenomenon of low-quality journalism has deep roots in Kyrgyzstan. First, journalism faculties at state universities lag behind modern informational and technological developments. Second, most teachers and working journalists in the country were educated during the Soviet era. Their curricula, knowledge bases, and programs are outdated; what they studied back then is not necessarily applicable today. The graduates of those faculties often lack the necessary knowledge and skills to integrate into the modern online media environment.
Kyrgyzstan needs a comprehensive program to assist its journalism teachers in improving their knowledge and developing up-to-date curriculums. Through such a program, teachers will obtain the necessary expertise to better educate the next generation of Kyrgyz journalists. Students then will study under the supervision of highly experienced teachers and have an opportunity to employ their knowledge during their studies at well-equipped labs at journalism faculties. As a result, graduates will be ready for the mass media job market. In addition, the program should create a handbook for Kyrgyz journalism and technical terms that are currently absent or utilized unsystematically.
An assistance program should also conduct tailored trainings for working journalists, to help them update their knowledge and professional skills. Well-equipped with up-to-date expertise, Kyrgyz journalists will become more competent and better able to offer high-standard news stories in the Kyrgyz language. They will replace the junky and low-quality information which currently prevails in Kyrgyz-language online media. Readers will be offered unbiased, impartial, well-researched and analyzed news. Furthermore, the status of journalism, which is currently perceived as corrupt and dishonest, will rise with its quality.
Last but not least, the issue at hand is not only about improving the quality of journalists and journalism in Kyrgyzstan, it is fundamentally about democracy. Well-analyzed, impartial and evidence-based journalism is how democratic societies keep officials accountable. The freedom of speech, which is at the heart of journalism but extends far beyond it, is an important element of a democracy.
Some would argue that old-school teachers and established working journalists can’t be retrained, or that the cost would be too great. These problems boil down to a lack of financial resources or willingness to change. The answer is simple: Anyone can be trained and educated, regardless of their age, once they are convinced of the need to change and aware of their vital importance in society. It will take time and resources. But it is better to take a step forward now than doing nothing.
The Kyrgyz government will also benefit from the improvement of journalistic standards. The online media, which are currently more likely to distort information than report accurately, can change. In turn, a more professional media will help the government communicate with the people.
Kyrgyz citizens should be offered good quality, impartial, unbiased and well-analyzed articles. In order to achieve this goal, Kyrgyz mass media should be trained and educated with modern skills and knowledge. The online media should not chase for sensational and extreme stories, which afterwards lead to the rise of biased and unverified information. They should comply with both local and international ethics and principles of journalism. Only then will people’s attitudes change and society become more demanding in keeping the government accountable. Promoting democratic values is not only a duty of journalists, but of each citizen of Kyrgyzstan.
Elmurat Ashiraliev is a visiting researcher at the Central Asia Program at George Washington University. He specializes in mass media and religion in Central Asia.