A court in Kyrgyzstan has frozen the bank accounts of two media outlets facing libel lawsuits mounted on behalf of the president by the General Prosecutor’s Office.
Bishkek city court on March 22 ruled that assets belonging to RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service, Radio Azattyq, and news website Zanoza.kg should be frozen pending hearings over their alleged “spread of dishonest information” about President Almazbek Atambayev.
Zanoza.kg chief editor Dina Maslova told EurasiaNet.org that the decision has put the operations of her outlet at risk.
“These are the funds we use to pay taxes, the salaries of our employees and our rent. Now we need to look into different options — opening another outlet, another website or just use social media. And there could be problems with advertisers,” she said.
Maslova said the website will appeal the ruling.
She and others have argued that the government is trying to force Zanoza.kg into refraining from critical reporting by filing unwarrantedly large lawsuits — Maslova has said her outlet is being sued for more than $140,000.
“We consider this a form of pressure. If the authorities wanted to get to the truth, then they would have settled this matter before going to court. They would have called, told us of their indignation, there would have been meetings. None of this happened. They want to ruin us from the outset, because what Kyrgyz outlet has this kind of money?” she said.
The court justified its ruling by saying that in the event of the lawsuit going the way of the General Prosecutor’s Office, it could directly levy the amount from the accounts.
But Maslova said the amount in question was not even on the accounts in the first place.
Azattyk has likewise said that its accounts do not hold the amount being sought in damages. The court ruled in favor of a freeze on 10 million som ($145,000), but since the funds are not present, there will instead be a block on all financial transactions.
In total, prosecutors are pursuing two libel cases against Azattyk and three against Zanoza.kg for a total of 29 million som ($420,000) in damages.
The main complaint relates to how both outlets covered a news conference given by lawyers representing jailed Ata-Meken opposition party leader Omurbek Tekebayev. During the press conference, the lawyers claimed that cargo on a plane that crashed outside Bishkek in January belonged to President Almazbek Atambayev and that Tekebayev had been jailed to avoid uncovering this alleged link.
The claims were purportedly supported by a document said to be from the Turkish security services. Ankara swiftly denied the veracity of the document, however, and language experts said the letter was replete with basic grammatical mistakes, raising serious doubts about its genuineness.
The General Prosecutor is also seeking 3 million som from Zanoza.kg co-founder Naryn Aiyp over a 2015 article questioning the provenance of funds in a presidential charity foundation.
In a reaction to the mounting wave of pressure against media, civil activists organized a march through the center of Bishkek over the weekend. Five participants were arrested for disrupting the public peace and sentenced to five days in jail.
That sparked a demand from Amnesty International for the activists to be released.
Atambayev, meanwhile, has spared few insults in referring to the country’s independent media, accusing them of being interested only in causing instability and of being “moral degenerates.”