UPDATE, October 7 – The producer of “The 10 Conditions of Love” has informed EurasiaNet.org that festival organizers did manage to screen the documentary in Bishkek on September 24, despite the SNB’s attempt to stop them. The initial screening was halted halfway through, after which the film “Russian Lessons” was screened in its entirety, according to the producer, followed by the remainder of “10 Conditions.”
Kyrgyzstan is regularly hailed as Central Asia’s most democratic state, flanked by autocracies and dictatorships. But the authorities’ strangely dogged – and successful – recent effort to keep viewers from seeing a documentary film about minority rights has left people wondering whether the compliment isn’t just relative.
On October 1, screenings of a film critical of Chinese policy toward its Uighur minority were abruptly cancelled in Naryn -- the third Kyrgyz city where this happened within a week. The Australian documentary, called “The 10 Conditions of Love,” was part of an annual human-rights film festival that had already run in Bishkek and Karakol, near Lake Issyk-Kul; in both cities, organizers told EurasiaNet.org, the film had been banned by the National Security Service (SNB), a successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB.
According to human rights groups, SNB officials told organizers to cancel a September 24 screening in Bishkek because it could reignite interethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan. The officials reportedly cited a request from Kyrgyzstan’s small Uighur community to postpone the film until after parliamentary elections on October 10, as well as an order from President Roza Otunbayeva’s chief of staff. In Karakol, where the film was scheduled for September 30, festival organizers said SNB officials also told them the film could not be shown.
In Naryn, where the festival was set to open with the controversial doc, the theater booked for the event pulled the plug shortly before show time, saying its power had been cut off for payment arrears. Several hundred viewers, most of them school children and college students, had gathered outside, according to organizers, but were dispersed by police. Organizers made speedy new arrangements with a local university, but a distraught-seeming senior university official stopped the showing 15 minutes after it began.
The reasons for the censorship are unclear. In Bishkek, a second documentary – criticizing Russia’s actions during its 2008 military campaign in Georgia – was also cancelled. So perhaps the authorities worry about upsetting powerful neighbors and trading partners like China and Russia? Or maybe they simply believe that the population of Central Asia’s most democratic country can’t handle any mention of interethnic strife? If that’s the case, it’s hard to imagine how such a policy can help the reconciliation efforts so badly needed by Kyrgyzstan’s divided ethnic communities.