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Kyrgyzstan Review, 10 years ago

[14.10.23] Kyrgyz Paper Attacks US Ambassador For Not Speaking Out On Media Freedom

A Kyrgyz newspaper has attacked the new US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Stephen Young, for lecturing journalists on the need for accuracy in their reports but not speaking out about the lack of democracy and media freedom in the country. It said the basic problem was that the judiciary was not free of executive control and as a result journalists were subject to arbitrary lawsuits. The following is an excerpt from the article by the Kyrgyz newspaper MSN published on 10 October; subheadings inserted editorially: A strange situation is taking shape in our country with various visitors from abroad. They seem to come with good intentions - to form an unprejudiced impression about what is going on in Kyrgyzstan. But after they step on Kyrgyz soil, they are immediately inspired to curry fervor with our authorities and begin to call on civil society, NGOs and the media to cooperate with the government. Incidentally, by government, they imply all branches of power, as this is understood in the West. That is all right, we should in fact somehow cooperate. One cannot be confrontational all one's life. But the trouble is that visitors who are charmed by a wonderful reception simply are not seeing what is in reality happening in our country.
New US ambassador shows "harsh attitude" towards journalists. Recently Freedom House held a round-table meeting entitled "The authorities and the press in Kyrgyzstan" in [the Kyrgyz capital] Bishkek. The head of the department for defense and security matters in the Kyrgyz presidential administration, Bolot Dzhanuzakov; a deputy interior minister; and the heads of the press services of state structures attended it. MPs and the ombudsman who were invited were noticeable by their absence. But the US ambassador [to Kyrgyzstan], Stephen Young, welcomed those who were present.
Journalists were baffled by his speech. Because the ambassador will be with us for a long time, he is neither a useless tourist nor a one-day visitor. At first he spoke, as he is supposed to - in keeping with his post and etiquette - about the need to develop healthy relations between the governments of the USA and Kyrgyzstan. Then [he spoke] about US support for our independent media, which is evidence of the USA's and Kyrgyzstan's adherence to democracy. Then [he said] a few words about the Freedom House project to set up an international publishing house.
Then a little diatribe against illiteracy aimed at journalists started. "Free media is not an end in itself but a means to achieve a free society," Mr. Young noted. And he further developed the idea along these lines, saying that journalists were often trapped because of their lack of professionalism. You use rumors and therefore lose court cases, he said. One should not use rumors. One should check everything carefully and have documents to prove in court the authenticity of reports filed.
The previous ambassador [John O'Keefe] had never shown such a harsh attitude towards journalists in Kyrgyzstan. It is clear he was fully informed since he regularly met representatives from various strata - state officials at various levels, MPs, the opposition, NGOs and the media. Analyzing cases of violations of human rights and freedoms in Kyrgyzstan, Mr. O'Keefe could not fail to see that the judiciary, which is independent in line with the constitution, obeys the country's executive, and that in such conditions, the protection of civil rights and the existence of independent media are face great difficulties. Therefore, perhaps he treated journalists, who experience continual pressure from state structures, with great sympathy. Kyrgyzstan moving away from democracy.
One should assume that if the new US ambassador, Mr. Young, wanted to, he might have looked at the issue of developing democracy in Kyrgyzstan. Then he would have to admit the obvious: that the president's authoritarian power is being reinforced in the country, election results are rigged, corruption and the black economy are prospering, people are living in dire poverty, unemployment is growing, people's rights are being infringed; and that it has become nearly impossible to hold rallies and demonstrations, and freedom of speech and press is suppressed by all available means, i.e. there is direct evidence of a move away from democracy.
All this is unpleasant and discomforting. It is much more convenient to believe in official statistics about GDP growth, the reduction of poverty and Kyrgyzstan's other glorious achievements, and to blame journalists who dared to criticize the president and the government for their lack of professionalism, especially if one bears in mind Ganci air base's continuing existence at Manas [the Ganci air base, near Bishkek, is used by the US-led anti-terrorist coalition].
[Passage omitted: a correspondent from Breakers Consulting, Nan Siemer, answered questions from journalists]
Authorities want compliant media  
Yes, the authorities are ready to cooperate with the media but not based on the principles accepted in the world's democracies, but on its own terms. It prefers "constructive" criticism. Excessive flattery is regarded as constructive and moderate flattery as unconstructive. And all the rest - slander and insults to dignity - is liable to end up in court. This implies that all journalists should embrace the authorities, be complimentary and be easily controlled.
The authorities will never see this happen. They cannot control the all journalism. There are several newspapers in the country, which will not give up. We fight for freedom every day and every hour. It is not so easy to do this with all the lies and dirt coming from the pages of pro-government newspapers, and the fraudulent allegations which all kinds of false agencies band about and disseminate on the Internet in our name. Newspapers are closed down and go bankrupt, and we get knockout blows in court cases but get on our feet again and again.
School of hard knocks  
It sounds funny when passing visitors begin to suggest common truths to us as if we were imbeciles, and urge us to adhere to laws, and not believe rumors and increase our professionalism. That's why we are standing firm because we have gone through the school of hard knocks, and we have experienced the arbitrariness of power structures on our own backs. We are also standing firm because there are still people in the world who in fact are not indifferent to the fate of democracy in Kyrgyzstan. We feel their support every hour and are grateful for this.
Pushing the media into the embrace of the current authorities makes it easier to suppress the independent media. Nan Siemer, on parting, said that there is an American saying - with friends like these who needs enemies.
MSN/Eurasianet, October 10/14, 2003

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