The former owner of Kyrgyzstan’s largest newspaper — which has tacked away from its formerly sparky reporting style since a court-ordered takeover in 2015 — is being targeted for arrest.
After nightfall on March 17, a group of officers with the finance police attempted to forcibly detain 70-year old Alexander Kim at his apartment, but their efforts were foiled following a public uproar.
The move comes against the backdrop of mounting intimidation of independent press and attempts by state prosecutors to seek crippling libel damages from critical outlets, such as Zanoza.kg, which is owned by Kim.
The State Service for Combating Economic Crimes has said it is investigating Kim over suspect financial activity when he was the director of the holding company that owned Vecherniy Bishkek newspaper.
Shortly after the arrival of the finance police squadron at Kim’s apartment, civic society and rights activists rushed to the scene. After a standoff lasting several hours, finance police relented but left a summons for Kim to present himself to the authorities on March 22.
Vecherniy Bishkek, a daily newspaper, has had a complicated and troubled past, having changed beneficiaries repeatedly through nebulous means.
Its current owner, Alexander Ryabushkin, previously had a degree of control over the paper, but argued that it was illegally wrested out of his hands. A court in September 2015 ordered that ownership of the newspaper be transferred from Kim to Ryabushkin.
Kim argued that the court decision was politically motivated and engineered by people close to the presidential administration.
That claim is not supported by firm evidence, but Vecherniy Bishkek’s editorial line does indeed hint at something of that nature. Under Kim, the newspaper was a spunky and often irreverent critic of the government under President Almazbek Atambayev. As soon as Ryabushkin gained control of the publication, it quickly switched to slavish support of the government and tacked to a heavily Russia-boosting position. Moreover, it has regularly served as a vehicle for smear attacks on critics of the government.
Ryabushkin has said that before leaving the newspaper, Kim raided the publication’s assets and loaded the company with debt.
Having been forced to abandon Vecherniy Bishkek, Kim and the journalists working for him set up the Zanoza.kg website, where the newspaper’s irreverent style was revived.
Current investigations by the finance police were sparked by a criminal complaint reportedly filed by Ryabushkin in 2015. It is not clear why authorities only decided to act now. Moreover, Kim’s lawyers said the finance police turned up at their client’s apartment without a warrant.
The timing of the decision to go after Kim is curious, however, as it coincides with a sharp escalation in pressure on independent media.
Atambayev has led the charge against what he perceives to be critical outlets. The General Prosecutor’s Office last week filed libel suits, on Atambayev’s behalf, against lawyers and media outlets that relayed an opposition politician’s claims that the president may have been the ultimate beneficiary of cargo on a plane that crashed in January in the capital, Bishkek. For that and the publication of another story — again based on the same politician’s public statements — alleging that Atambayev has secret bank accounts in Cyprus, prosecutors are seeking 6 million som ($86,000) in damages from Zanoza.kg.