Independent media and political organizations in Kyrgyzstan are battling the Ministry of Justice, asserting that a government re-registration campaign, decreed on April 5, represents an attempt to crush freedom of expression. A Bishkek city arbitration court dealt the journalists a blow July 30 by throwing out a lawsuit brought against the justice ministry. Legal wrangling appears set to continue for months, paralyzing mass media operations in Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyz authorities claimed they needed to conduct the re-registration campaign in order to precisely determine the number of media outlets in the country. Independent journalists say the re-registration order is illegal, citing a 1992 law that requires re-registration only when organizations change or new ones form. Civil-society organizations throughout the country say the intent of the order is to crack down on freedom of expression.
In late June, an Interior Ministry order appeared that prohibited new media outlets from forming during the re-registration period. Authorities had backdated this order to April 5, casting a cloud over the 16 media outlets that had registered during that period.
This group includes some media organizations that have challenged the government's viewpoint. Most prominently, it includes two potentially influential newspapers, Moya Stolitsa and Agym. Moya Stolitsa's leader is Alexander Kim, the former editor-in-chief of Vecherny Bishkek. Kim left "Vecherka" back in 1999 when people closely connected with the Kyrgyz government bought the paper. Agym is a Kyrgyz-language newspaper and is publicly seen as the direct successor to Asaba, opposition figure Melis Eshimkanov's newspaper that went out of business after lawsuits in April 2001.
Both Moya Stolitsa and Agym chose to fight the government's action in court, filing separate lawsuits against the Ministry of Justice in July. The newspapers' editors argued that the Ministry cannot de-register their legally registered papers by producing a shaky document that didn't reach the public until 2 ½ months after its alleged signing.
The first day in court for the founders of Agym was July 13, but the case was postponed. Then, on July 23, the first court session for the Moya Stolitsa case was set, but nobody from the Ministry of Justice showed up. The postponement of the court case became inevitable when the Court of Arbitration's Secretary Office failed to send the court summons to the Ministry of Justice in time. The official reason given to the lawyer representing Agym was: "We did not have any envelopes."
The July 30 decision by the arbitration court means the plaintiffs must file new lawsuits with a different court, the Court of General Jurisdiction. If nothing else, the lawsuits have extended a period of uncertainty for mass media. The government already has twice extended the re-registration period, first to September 1, and then to October 1. This simply means that media development in Kyrgyzstan is virtually paralyzed for months.
Some local observers express concern that the government wants to stifle free expression out of a desire to conduct a referendum this fall that potentially asks voters to approve an extension of the presidential term to seven years, as well as the elimination of one of the two houses of the legislature. Strict oversight of mass media by incumbent authorities could be a crucial element in securing approval for such controversial measures.
Media experts say Agym and especially Moya Stolitsa, which potentially have a combined circulation approaching 500,000, would likely vigorously oppose a government effort to extend the presidential term or alter the composition of the legislature.
Officials have also taken action to prevent the consolidation of opposition mass media. Recently, Moya Stolitsa published a joint edition with another independent newspaper called Advokat, a small infrequently published paper. The first joint edition, however, had a circulation of 10,000 prompting an immediate response from the Justice Ministry. Officials threatened the owner of Advokat with legal action, and instructed the monopolist printing-house Uchkun not to print the joint project anymore.
While some media outlets fight the Justice Ministry, many are in a state of confusion over what to do. The prevailing mood appears to be one of playing it safe. "We have prepared the relevant documents although we know that the decision of the Ministry of Justice is illegal," said the manager of one independent media outlet in Bishkek. "But we all know that they do as they please and we don't want to be the odd ones out."
Chris Schuepp works as Country Director for Internews Network in the Kyrgyz Republic.