Kyrgyzstan: Former president drops libel claims against reporters, activist

His critics say the move is not an act of magnanimity, but motivated out of desperation over changes on the political scene.

The embattled former president of Kyrgyzstan has announced he is dropping his punishing libel payment claims against a pair of journalists and a rights activist.

Naryn Ayip and Dina Maslova, founders of the Zanoza news website, and rights activist Cholpon Dzhakupova were in a series of rulings last year ordered by a court to pay almost half a million dollars in damages for purportedly smearing the reputation of then-President Almazbek Atambayev.

Atambayev’s office said on May 18 that the decision to forgive the outstanding liabilities stemmed from positive changes observed on the local media scene in the past year.

“As a result of libel cases in the courts and the attention paid by the public and journalists themselves to the issue of ‘fake news’ and libel, the situation in the information sphere of Kyrgyzstan has radically changed for the better,” the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, which is led by Atambayev, said in a statement.

There are strong suspicions, however, that this gesture is not motivated so much by magnanimity as developments on the political scene.

"I do not know if this was a sincere decision. But I think it is more likely that the political situation probably played a part,” said Maslova, one of the reporters. “What is more, this hardly did his reputation much good and the whole affair was getting dragged out anyway. It was a dead-end situation, where someone had to take the first step.”

Atambayev is currently embroiled in a behind-the-scenes tussle with his successor, Sooronbai Jeenbekov, who has steadily sought to consolidate his monopoly control over the levers of power. The two are long-time associates, but while Atambayev appears to have believed he would retain influence over national decision-making after stepping down from office in November, Jeenbekov has shown no willingness to share the business of running the country.

Toward the tail-end of his single permitted six-year term, Atambayev began to adopt harsh methods to silence his often sharp-tongued critics. Rather than filing libel suits himself, the task was in an unspoken arrangement delegated to his bulldog General Prosecutor, Indira Joldubayeva. She was fired by Jeenbekov in April.

The offending articles published by Zanoza relayed remarks by a now-jailed opposition leader linking Atambayev to alleged and so-far unproven smuggling operations.

In August, Atambayev vowed he would never forgive Zanoza and that the suits against the outlet would serve as an example for other journalists who slandered him.

Some commentators have argued that he is now attempting to redeem his public image among his former critics through an act of clemency toward the former targets of crippling legal campaigns.

Things are certainly getting uncomfortable for the former leader.

Lawmakers have overwhelmingly supported the idea of stripping Atambayev of his immunity status as a former head of state, possibly leaving him open to investigation over the contentious modernization of a power plant in the capital, Bishkek. In a most distressing development for him, many of the votes cast in a preliminary parliamentary poll to proceed with that initiative came from members of his own party. This suggests that even his primary base of support — the party that he helped set up and where he retook the helm in March — is demonstrating less-than-loyal behavior.

Kyrgyzstan: Former president drops libel claims against reporters, activist

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