The future of news in Kyrgyzstan stands at a crossroads today. The growing number of mobile phone users is the factor that will drive the outcome.
During a roundtable discussion, held in the spring at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, it was clear that this young nation of 5.5 million was poised to step onto a new social landscape, a wholly undiscovered place populated by 4.4 million mobile phone subscribers. Mobile phone penetration is “heading for 100 percent,” according to the UN International Telecommunications Union. Internet users have also increased dramatically, from 750,000 in 2009 to 2.1 million today.
This revolution in telecommunications, and its connection to news delivery, raises a simple question: What will the idea of “news” come to mean in Kyrgyzstan, a country where journalism has yet to find its footing, where local news gathering remains undermined by corruption, governmental interference and widespread self-censorship?
Some 21 percent of Kyrgyz used mobile phones to access the Internet in 2010, according to a study done by the OpenNet Initiative, a research partnership formed by Harvard University and two Canadian institutions. As might be expected in a country where 34 percent of citizens are under 15 years old, three-quarters of Internet users in Kyrgyzstan are 30 or younger, OpenNet noted.
Surely it won’t be long before a much larger percentage of Kyrgyz are accessing the Internet via mobile telephones. Computers are expensive; mobile phones are not. Just under 2 percent of Kyrgyz own a PC, according to a 2008 UN e-Government Survey.
What I wonder about are the unintended consequences of so many Kyrgyz using mobile phones to find out what’s going on in their own country, which goes largely unreported by the larger global news community. I fear that without a baseline set of news-gathering values, ordinary news consumers may end up just pinballing around the Internet, leaving Kyrgyzstan as an emerging “niche news” society reliant on whatever is “trending now” on Yahoo.
So what, you say? That’s what people all over the world do. And sure, the smaller screens of mobile phones might be a hindrance for viewing complex, non-video information, but in the end the truth will out, right? Perhaps. During the June 2010 violence between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, it was clear that mobile phone users played a key role in spreading rumors and violence-prompting misinformation at an unprecedented speed, a Kyrgyzstani commission of inquiry Commission has noted.
What was also made clear at the recent AUCA roundtable is that Kyrgyz journalists are worried about where their profession is headed.
“Of course, there is a future for journalism,” said Aizatbek Beshov, the British Broadcasting Corp’s Russian service reporter in Bishkek. “But we have to ask ourselves, what kind of future? Journalists are not objective here. In most cases journalists are taking sides” on all kinds of issues.
“What is more important, politics or entertainment?” he asked at the roundtable. “There should be news distinctions between the two.”
But today in Kyrgyzstan, as in the United States and elsewhere, such distinctions are blurring.
News today in Kyrgyzstan often conflates journalism and public relations; the opinionated chatter of social media too often merges with fact, innuendo and rumor but is reported as truth; unverified political speculation mixes with individual political ambition and party agendas.
Gulnura Toralieva, chair of the AUCA Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, believes that most Russian-language “Kyrgyz journalism is about news. However, the quality is not always good. Most of the reporting is based on press releases. Most of the news lacks several sources.” In addition, she added in an email, there is little original reporting. Journalists rely heavily on Web-based Kyrgyz news agencies such as 24.kg and Akipress.kg, which “never do their own investigations,” said Toralieva. “Their main job is to attend press conferences or other on-diary events” planned in advance.
Kyrgyz journalists report spot-news events after they happen, but spend little effort on investigative work or developing the watchdog role that comes with in-depth reporting, she noted. Kyrgyz-language newspapers largely “focus on sensationalism, sex and celebrities,” added Toralieva. “Some of them don’t care about ethics and even media law. They only worry about sensational stories.”
To citizens of well-established democracies, none of this may sound especially alarming. Journalism is not, after all, news. “Journalism is simply the system societies generate to supply” news, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel noted in their classic book, “The Elements of Journalism.” But, they add, “That is why we care about the character of news and journalism we get: they influence the quality of our lives, our thought and our culture.” (Italics mine.)
Information obtained via computer-based Internet access is often different in kind than news accessed via a mobile phone. The length of a news story and the amount of information it contains -- not to mention who wrote it – can make a significant difference.
Will it be harder for news consumers who have never known a free and unfettered local press to understand what news is when it’s delivered via the smaller screen of a mobile phone? Or does technology make no difference at all?
How easy will it be for Kyrgyz news consumers – raised on an ambiguous local version of news – to evaluate political propaganda, factual information or the latest tweet from Ashton Kutcher, who boasts 6.7 million Twitter followers?
“The Internet and the penetration of mobile technology in Kyrgyzstan will change the speed that people disseminate and receive information,” said Farrell Styers, director of the Bishkek-based research and consulting firm Oxus. “It may also change the sources they receive that information from.
“I think the arc of the Kyrgyz news media bends toward good journalism,” he added. “Technology like the Internet does help the democratization of information, but it isn't going to solve the problems with the media here.
“It may speed the process along that arc, but none of us yet know how quickly. In the long term things will, I think, improve,” Styers concluded. “But between now and then there will be a lot of disappointments.”
Styers, it seems to me, has it exactly right. And where does that leave news-starved Kyrgyzstan?
Timothy Kenny, a former newspaper foreign editor, Fulbright Scholar and non-profit foundation executive, is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut and an Open Society Institute international scholar. He works with the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.