It has come to this: under pressure from the international community for its handing of the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, the provisional government in Bishkek is blaming the media.
Officials are complaining bitterly about what they claim is biased western media coverage of the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan, which has claimed hundreds of lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. Allegedly slanted reporting, provisional leaders add, helped fan unrest and spread negative stereotypes about ethnic Kyrgyz.
Journalists rushed to Osh, the scene of the most severe Uzbek-Kyrgyz clashes on June 11-14. Western reporting found clear evidence of atrocities committed by both sides. Western reports also found that a vast majority of casualties comprised Uzbeks, and that Uzbek neighborhoods appeared to suffer more damage than did Kyrgyz areas of the city. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, an overwhelming proportion of those displaced were Uzbeks.
“It can hardly be put in any doubt that the scale of attacks on Uzbeks was huge and that Uzbeks seem to have suffered overwhelmingly,” said a western reporter not affiliated with EurasiaNet.org, who covered the violence in southern Kyrgyzstan. The reporter spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern about possible provisional government retaliation.
Provisional leaders insist that members of former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s family stoked the violence out of a desire to keep Kyrgyzstan unstable. Maxim Bakiyev, a son of the former president, has denied the allegation, countering that the provisional government is trying to make him a scapegoat. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. Rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the violence. The provisional government has so far resisted the idea, contending that it will carry out its own investigation.
A provisional government spokesman in Bishkek was highly critical of foreign journalists for supposedly not reporting on the Osh events in an objective manner. “Western media covered [the conflict] in a very one-sided way and they pick information that is good for them,” Kemel Belekov of the interim government’s press service told EurasiaNet.org. “Some western media outlets are even calling it a genocide of the Uzbek people. That is not true. […] Our suggestion is to show both sides, Kyrgyz and Uzbek.”
Before hanging up the telephone abruptly, Belekov claimed that Western reporters, because of their supposed one-sided coverage, bore some “moral responsibility” for the bloodshed.
The opinions expressed by Belekov appear to be widespread, both among provisional leaders and, more broadly, among members of the titular nationality.
“International media, especially western media, has covered events in a one-sided manner, saying that the Kyrgyz people have organized a genocide against the Uzbeks. That’s absolutely not true,” Deputy Health Minister Kasymbek Mambetov told EurasiaNet.org in Osh.
Provisional leaders are now fighting back. In a prime time feature on June 16, for example, Kyrgyz state television blasted the British Broadcasting Corp. for its coverage of the conflict. “Presenting spiced up information has added fuel to the fire and further aggravated the condition of Kyrgyz citizens living in the south,” a television presenter said. “Hunting for hot news, pen pushers occasionally forget that a word may become a real weapon.”
Some media observers also contended that the Russian-language coverage of the clashes left a lot to be desired. Marat Tokoev, director of the non-governmental organization Journalists, complained that Russian-language coverage “was one-sided and didn’t really reflect the whole picture of what was going on in the South.”
“You can really see that when [foreign journalists] come here, they come with their pre-shaped view, or template, which they give to their audience, to television watchers or readers. It was basically to make hot, breaking news for them,” he said, commenting on foreign coverage in general.
Acknowledging such conflicts always breed disputes over coverage, the western journalist asserted that the provisional government is trying to shift the blame, rather than address its own shortcomings.
“If [the government’s] reaction to another ethnic conflict is to blame western reporters for being supposedly one-sided, it shows they [provisional leaders] are not really serious about addressing the problem,” he said. “One of the core problems at the heart of what came about in Osh and Jalal-abad was that relations between the two communities [Kyrgyz and Uzbek] have never been the [subject] of [public] discussion.”
David Trilling is the Central Asia news editor for EurasiaNet.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.