Kyrgyzstan's Lower House of parliament on 8 December voted to change the country's election law to stipulate that foreign media in Kyrgyzstan may not publish or broadcast what the amendment calls "agitation" or election propaganda. It also bars foreign organizations and individuals from engaging in "electioneering."
But many journalists working in the country are unclear about how those terms may be applied to their coverage of campaigns, candidates, and polls.
Kyrgyz journalist Tolkun Namatbaeva says the amendment, if signed into law by President Askar Akaev, would restrict foreign coverage of the election process, and for that reason is unacceptable. "This is, of course, intolerable, because foreign mass media would lose their rights to objective coverage of elections, because there are a lot of restrictions [against them]," she said. "The line is very thin between that which would be interpreted as agitation, and that which would be seen as objective coverage of the pre-election campaign."
Representatives of Russian newspapers in Bishkek are also expressing their opposition to the amendment. The editors of the Kyrgyz editions of "Rossiiskaya gazeta," "Argumenty i fakty," "Komsomolskaya pravda," and "Moskovskii komsomolets" are appealing to Akaev to veto the amendment.
Ella Taranova, an editor from "Rossiiskaya gazeta," says newspapers provide valuable information to the electorate. "I think the [Kyrgyz] lawmakers who adopted the new norm have made a mistake," she said. She points out that they did not define what qualifies as "agitation," what a pre-election campaign is, or what is "just" coverage of election-related events. So many questions remain. She says such "agitation," or covering the pre-election campaign, "means information for readers, an orientation for the electorate. It would be unwise to deprive them of such a channel of information."
Arkadii Gladilov, an editor at "Komsomolskaya pravda," told Interfax he believes the amendment violates the Kyrgyz Constitution concerning freedom of the press. "The Central Election Commission is trying to act as a censor," Gladilov said, "and decide who can run advertisements and who cannot. So, the country has acquired a certain state institution which exercises control over the Russian and Kyrgyz press."
Gennadii Pavlyuk is an editor with "Argumenty i fakty" in Kyrgyzstan. He thinks the draft amendment works against the interests of Russia and Russian outlets in Kyrgyzstan. "I think these amendments and also the new draft law on state language are part of a united chain [of actions]. I believe that it is a political order," he said. "I have doubts whether it was ordered by our White House in Bishkek [the Kyrgyz government], or whether it was a scenario prepared somewhere abroad. But these coincidences are not by accident. This anti-Russian action coincided with the events in Georgia and with the Russian failure in Moldova tailored to the jurisdictional measurement of Transdniester and Moldova."
But Sulaiman Imanbaev, chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission, sees nothing wrong with the amendment. He says agitation by foreign media constitutes interference in Kyrgyzstan's domestic affairs. "Concerning agitation, [I would say that] if any foreign mass media participates in the election of any candidate, in the election of a statesman to any position or in support of or fighting against him, that would be interference in the domestic issues of the country," he said.
Imanbaev also takes issue with concerns the amendment will prevent foreign media from covering Kyrgyz election campaigns objectively and in detail. "At the same time, foreign outlets have a right to cover the election processes in the country and inform on events related to the election campaign, without agitating [the electorate]," he said.
Kyrgyzstan's next parliamentary and presidential elections are due in 2005.
By Charles Carlson,
Eurasianet, December 13, 2003