On December 25, Kyrgyzstan’s President Sooronbay Jeenbekov hosted his second annual press conference at the state residence in Bishkek. In total, 188 journalists, mostly from local outlets, took part in the three-hour press conference.
Jeenbekov started things off with a 20-minute discussion of the government’s accomplishments in 2019. His talking points largely centered on economic matters, such as foreign investment and exports to China, but also veered into social issues, like the traffic safety initiative “Safe City.” Jeenbekov then took questions from reporters.
Although the press conference offered a chance for journalists to ask about the year as a whole, questions centered largely on the social and political upheavals of the last two months. Some reporters were frustrated at not getting a chance to ask Jeenbekov a question, which was partially due to the size of the audience, but was primarily a function of an abrupt change in format.
Whereas journalists waited in line for access to the microphone at previous press conferences, this year press secretary Tolgonai Stamalieva managed the room by fielding three questions at a time. Ulugbek Akishev, a commercial executive with Kloop, posted on Facebook, “It’s terrible that the format that’s been used for many years in past press conferences was changed at the last minute and that this made it possible for manipulating who could ask questions.”
The new format gave a lot of power to the press secretary to take questions from outlets that have been less critical of Jeenbekov’s administration, though it would not be accurate to say the press conference was entirely curated to avoid criticism. Aprel, an opposition television channel that was forcibly closed in April after former President Almazbek Atambayev was arrested, was given accreditation, for example.
Jeenbekov was asked several questions about freedom of expression in Kyrgyzstan. He acknowledged that he had “heard about” the recent denial of service attacks on independent media outlets. Jeenbekov said that plans are in place to create an agency responsible for citizens’ information security in 2020, but dodged the targeted nature of the cyber attacks. “DDoS attacks aren’t only happening here, but also in technologically advanced countries,” he said.
Questions about press freedom were sometimes difficult to disentangle from those about corruption. A journalist asked about the government’s response to a series of investigative reports that implicate former customs service official Raimbek Matraimov in large-scale bribery and money laundering. Jeenbekov’s response was verbose, winding around his campaign promises to tackle corruption and plans to beef up the government’s technological capacity to monitor and weed out corruption.
Strikingly, Jeenbekov openly admitted that Kyrgyzstan’s customs service is highly corrupt. “Wherever big money flows, there’s always corruption,” he said. In contrast with previous comments about Matraimov, in which he flatly dismissed accusations and demanded that journalists give “facts” before making claims about corruption, at the press conference Jeenbekov said, “There are not only dozens, but hundreds” of corrupt officials working in customs.
It did not take long for criticism of Jeenbekov’s comments at the press conference to bubble up. Opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev sharply censured Jeenbekov for trying to accumulate power that is constitutionally reserved for the prime minister. Some critiques were more lighthearted, such as one Instagram user’s meme with pull-quotes from the press conference laid over a photoshopped picture of Jeenbekov stretching noodles. The post — a visual nod to the Russian phrase “to hang noodles over someone’s ears,” which does not directly translate into English but roughly means to pull one over on someone — suggests dissatisfaction with Jeenbekov’s dodgy answers and the abundance of softball questions from pro-regime news outlets.
The press conference came just a week after a protest over corruption and the government’s indifference toward citizens’ demands for reform, the second such rally in a month. It seems unlikely that Jeenbekov’s comments about corruption, development, and freedom of expression will satisfy the “reaktsiya” protesters.