Kyrgyzstan’s president has agreed to drop his claim to libel damages from a news website in a marked shift from the tack adopted by his litigious predecessor.
A spokesman for Sooronbai Jeenbekov said on February 5 that officials at Sverdlovsk district court have been informed that proceedings to seek 5 million som ($73,500) in payments from 24.kg news agency have been discontinued.
Jeenbekov’s libel suit was initiated in September in response to an article written by former lawmaker Kabai Karabekov, who alleged that the then-presidential candidate and his brother, another influential politician, had ties to “radical Arab organizations.”
Sverdlovsk district court ruled that Karabekov’s piece did indeed constitute libel and found that he and 24.kg, whose website published the article, should both pay $73,500 apiece in “moral compensation.”
Although Jeenbekov has dropped his suit against 24.kg, he is still demanding money from Karabekov. The ex-member of parliament has said that he is seeking for permission from the courts to pay the damages in installments.
Crippling libel suits have become a favored way for the authorities to stifle independent media.
Toward the end of his term, Jeenbekov’s predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev, who left office in November, won several large payouts in court cases launched on his behalf by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Six people — two lawyers, two activists and two journalists — were deemed guilty of wounding Atambayev’s “honor and dignity” in various articles and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollar in damages.
Jeenbekov’s willingness not to go all the way in bankrupting a media outlet marks a slightly softer approach.
Kyrgyzstan fell by four spots, to 89th place, in the Reporters Without Borders’ most recent World Press Freedom Index. The media rights watchdog lamented the proliferation of self-censorship that has succeeded Atambayev’s financially onerous suits.
Nurjamal Djanibekova is a journalist based in Bishkek.
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