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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[24.12.23] Kyrgyzstan: Government Proposes Decriminalizing Media Libel

President Askar Akayev has placed a new bill before Kyrgyzstan's parliament on decriminalizing media libel, seen as a positive step by some experts. "The draft law consists of two parts, the first one is abolishing criminal charges for libel and the second is introduction of duty on a suit's total amount [of damages]," Dosaly Esenaliev, the head of the presidential press service, told IRIN from the capital, Bishkek.
According to Esenaliev, the bill proposes dropping some provisions of the Criminal Code defining criminal responsibility for libel as insulting a person's honor and dignity in a public statement or the mass media. The current law says a person convicted of libel in court can be imprisoned for three years.
The bill also proposes some amendments to the law on state duty, envisaging introduction of a certain sum to be paid before suits on protection of honor, dignity and business reputation of persons can be considered by court.
Esenaliev said that if the bill passed into law, a plaintiff would have to deposit 5 percent of the total damages claimed pending the court's decision. "This draft law ultimately aims at supporting the development of mass media," the government official asserted, adding that the new law could result in reducing the number of suits brought against the media and render the sums of claimed damages more reasonable.
However, Kuban Mambetaliev, head of Zhurnalisty, a local NGO working for freedom of the press in the country, disagreed. "If they cancel these articles in the Criminal Code on imprisonment, it won't resolve the issue, because the suits will be processed based on the Civil Code as they have been before," he told IRIN from Bishkek, adding that it was mainly government officials of various levels, including the prime minister, who were suing independent media because of their critical publications.
"They [plaintiffs now] pay US $0.23 and claim $230,000 [of damages]. Therefore, if you introduce a 10 percent duty on the total amount of claimed damages, then the sums claimed would sharply decrease," he said. Were that to be the case, if a plaintiff claimed $230,000, he would have to pay $23,000. The NGO activist said nobody would do that as he would be unlikely to expose himself to the tax authorities, who might question the legality of the acquisition of the $23,000. "This financial regulator of a duty could simply resolve the issue and the suits would come to naught," he claimed. The average monthly salary in the country is about $25.
According to Zhurnalisty, government officials brought to court five suits based on Civil Code against the media in 2000 and seven in 2002. However, in 2003 the number almost tripled compared to 2000, reaching 14 suits. In this context, Mambetaliev stressed the importance of supporting initiatives to draft and propose new laws which could serve to curb such litigation against independent media outlets - the only voice of dissent - and rendering them bankrupt.
Meanwhile, Caroline Jiraud of Reporters Without Borders (RWB), who is responsible for the former Soviet Union, told IRIN from Paris that the recent proposal by the Kyrgyz authorities was a positive one. "This draft law is one of the very few good initiatives on press freedom that Kyrgyzstan has launched this year. Unfortunately the situation is worsening in Kyrgyzstan. It was supposed to be the best country in Central Asia in terms of freedom of press," she said.
However, the real problem of libel in the country was not so much a problem of the Criminal Code, Jiraud maintained, noting that the last time a journalist was condemned to a prison term was 1996. "The biggest problem is that the authorities use libel laws in order to bankrupt newspapers," she said, citing as an example the Moya Stolitsa independent newspaper, which had been sued so many times that it had to close down. "I don't know if this draft law will take this into account," Jiraud noted, saying that that RWB would wait and see what they [the authorities] would do.
Freedom House has rated the country's press as "not free" in its last survey. According to the law, legislators must vote on the bill within a month of its being brought before parliament.
IRIN, December 24, 2003

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