As Kyrgyzstan strives to break a vicious cycle of corruption and authoritarianism, representatives of the provisional government in Bishkek insist they are committed to creating a genuinely free press, one that is capable of fulfilling a watchdog role. But for that to happen, much more than just governmental will is needed.
During Kurmanbek Bakiyev's five-year tenure in Bishkek, media outlets came under the executive branch's increasing control. Authorities tightened the country's legislative framework and used the courts to punish independent-minded media outlets that strayed from the government line. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Toward the end, Bakiyev resorted to blatant forms of censorship, including the blocking of foreign-based news websites that his administration deemed nettlesome. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
For now, a week after the Bakiyev administration collapsed amid the April 6-7 violence in Bishkek, Kyrgyz mass media outlets are enjoying a relatively high degree of editorial freedom. Channeling that freedom in a productive direction, however, promises to be a major challenge. Success in this area could have crucial ramifications for the Kyrgyz provisional government's plan to break the country's authoritarian political pattern. The country's first two post-Soviet presidents - Bakiyev and Askar Akayev - succumbed to unbridled corruption. A free press, capable of investigating and bringing to light government malfeasance, would offer perhaps the best check against the next government in Bishkek heading down the same path to perdition.
Under existing Kyrgyz conditions, creating a free press will be much easier said than done, according to local media observers. Those who run media outlets in Kyrgyzstan do not have a solid grasp of the role a free press should play in civil society, said Mariya Rasner, the director of the Internews Network representative office in Kyrgyzstan. As a result, there is no tradition of promoting or defending free-speech rights.
"When you talk to media organizations and discuss defending the interests of each other, they prefer not to because they all have their own ways, and their people up top to solve their little problems on their own," Rasner said. "And it works for them as long as they can resolve their little problems. We're seeing this across the country right now. They're just thinking of themselves, not the country as a whole."
Central Asia as a whole has proven one of the most inhospitable environments in the world for journalists. Authoritarian-minded regimes throughout the region have put into place mechanisms designed to muzzle independent voices. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Kyrgyzstan's latest bout of turmoil is actually giving media outlets in the country a second chance to establish a free-press tradition. The so-called Tulip Revolution offered a similar opportunity that, according to Rasner, was squandered.
"We in the media community didn't manage to achieve whatever we set to achieve because in the end there was no political will," Rasner said, referring to the early days of Bakiyev's administration in 2005-2006.
For things to change this time around, journalists must assume a greater sense of individual responsibility for maintaining high standards for the accuracy and fairness of their reporting. During Kyrgyzstan's post-Soviet existence, journalists' understanding of standards and best-practices have been lacking, experts say. Many have shown themselves too quick to report rumor and innuendo, and have been prone to allowing personal interests and loyalties shape coverage.
"How can we talk about free media if our journalists again and again are so easily manipulated? Can you call most of them journalists?" asked Edil Baisalov, the chief of staff to provisional government leader Roza Otumbayeva. "I ask this question at the same time as I recognize, we were occupied and we saw journalists fleeing for their lives, beaten up and killed."
One area where the government can make a big difference is the legislative framework concerning mass media. The law has often been used as an instrument of repression and intimidation not just in Kyrgyzstan, but throughout Central Asia. Numerous news outlets and individual journalists who defy government wishes have found themselves the targets of politically motivated libel suits, ones that result in the imposition of crippling financial penalties and/or prison terms. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. As a result, many journalists have become accustomed to the practice of self-censorship.
To bolster confidence among journalists, a thorough overhaul of legislation is needed. In addition, free-speech advocates say, judicial reforms should be implemented that can prevent political leaders from abusing the legal system in order to muzzle journalists.
"In order to make libel suits more free and fair, we should totally change the court system. We should make it independent. Because before, all of the libel suits were ordered [by those in power]," Asiya Sasykbaeva, the director of the Interbilim Center, a civil society watchdog in Bishkek, told EurasiaNet.org.
No substantial legislative changes are likely until a new government is in place. The provisional government has pledged to hold elections within six months. Baisalov expressed the belief that the country's future leaders would probably be amenable to making substantial changes. But he stressed that the development of a free-press in Kyrgyzstan was not mainly "about legislation, not about laws, and not about rules or policies to be announced by the government."
"Especially in journalism, it is about the quality of the professionals, their readiness to question, to be accurate and be civil in the pursuit of national interests," he said.
David Trilling is EurasiaNet's Central Asia news editor.