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The Media Situation in Kyrgyzstan

        This account is excerpted from a report by Eric Johnson, of Internews, written with Martha Olcott and Robert Horvitz.  The full report  “The Media in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan:  An Analysis conducted by Internews for USAID, is available from Internews in Arcata, CA.

Electronic Media

       Kyrgyzstan does not have the financial or human resources to support a diversified and abundant original television system.  The part-time Kyrgyz-language national channel has little of interest to viewers, with a few exceptions such as the Monday youth programs.  Almaty TV transmits in Bishkek as well.  There are regional TV stations in several of the oblast centers, but again the financial and human resources are insufficient to produce much beyond local news in the conventional Soviet style.

        Both Moscow channels are broadcast in the urban areas of the country, but the cost of maintaining the transmitter network makes it unlikely that all areas will continue to receive all three channels.  In March 1994, Bishkek sharply cut Ostankino transmissions, with none coming after 10 pm; on the other hand, Bishkek’s fourth channel now carries full-time Turkish TV broadcasts.  Audience receptivity to Moscow television is also changing, as Moscow’s own “slant” evolves.  Many have complained of the persistence with which Ostankino presents “more bad news in Central Asia” stories.

        Several local independent TV stations have begun to operate.  Piramida in Bishkek is the most prominent, but its owners have chosen to broadcast only entertainment and advertising; they consider television news unprofitable.  Other TV ventures seem to have followed the same path of focusing on entertainment, though reports indicate Osh has a more interesting independent station.  In general, the economic situation is so poor that the need for advertising is minimal, and the disposable incomes of people who could pay for classified ads and dedications are not large enough to support much independent TV.

        Bishkek has two independent radio stations which share one FM frequency.  Both are run by interesting groups of young people who love their jobs as DJs, and both are widely listened to.  Neither have the will or the resources to establish a news-gathering operation large enough to attract listeners on its own; they focus on music.  Radio Almaz does make more of an attempt to provide local news, translating some of the Kyrgyz-language press over the air and making weekly five-minute high-power shortwave English-language Kyrgyzstan news broadcasts, while Radio Piramida claims to retransmit some BBC news.  Radio Piramida reaches a wider area in northern Kyrgyzstan by virtue of broadcasting on medium-wave as well as the shared FM channel.

The Press

        There are two major government-run national newspapers, the government’s Slovo Kyrgyzstana and parliament’s Svobodnye gory, and their Kyrgyz-language sister publications Kyrgyz tuusu and Erkin too.  Svobodnye gory generally receives high marks among critics of the press for professionalism and a variety of news coverage, covering parliamentary events as well as responding to its audience’s desires.  However, it is on the verge of closure for financial reasons.  The largest-circulation paper in the republic, and one of only two which pays for itself in the entire country, is the city paper Vechernyi Bishkek, profitable because of a substantial number of classified ads.

        The introduction of a new currency has made the distribution of Moscow-based newspapers all but impossible, and they have practically disappeared in Kyrgyzstan.  We know of no distribution of non-NIS newspapers or wire services in Kyrgyzstan, and there is little prospect of their appearance.

        The only known independent papers in the country are in the capital.  Res Publica is an acerbic weekly with little news and a great deal of critical commentary on the government, and has developed a devoted readership.  Asaba is the former youth newspaper, better positioned than others in terms of popularity because of its upbeat style.  Kyrgyz rukhkhu is the only independent Kyrgyz-language newspaper, but its strength is also its weakness, as advertisers almost without exception have no interest in reaching only readers of Kyrgyz; like Erkin too, however, it will occasionally publish politically controversial articles in Russian.  Iuzhniy kur’er, perhaps the most informative of the independents, is a project of the local Russian businessman Boris Vorob’ev, and Biznismen K is another paper oriented toward the new business class.  Delo nomer, another commercial newspaper, focuses on human rights and human-interest articles.

       Distribution of all of the independent press is almost completely limited to the capital.  Oblasts more remote from the capital seem to continue practices much like those of the Soviet past, making the more far-flung newspapers essentially propaganda organs.  Most of them pursue an editorial policy of extravagant praise for the akim (local leader) and his appointees, punctuated by attacks on their critics and enemies.

        Most of the prominent journalists in the republic, and especially those in the non-governmental press, are untrained amateurs who have come to journalism from a wide variety of other backgrounds.  The enthusiasm and freshness of some of these amateurs are potent agents for change in the republic’s media, but their lack of formal training increases the risk they will make questionable decisions and behave in an extreme or destabilizing fashion.

Regulation

       There is surprisingly little regulation of media in Kyrgyzstan; there is no Ministry of the Press or its equivalent.  A division of the Ministry of Justice registers “means of mass information,” but there are no recorded cases of registration being refused.  Kyrgyzstan’s 1992 Law on Media, one of the most permissive in the former Soviet Union and the only one in Central Asia that is not a copy of the Soviet law of the same name, provides the framework for the media’s work.  Like the Constitution, it provides an extensive itemization of individual rights, including the right of free expression.  The government’s stated liberal policy with respect to a free press seems to have been more effective than in neighboring countries in restraining over-zealous bureaucrats from using technicalities to silence critics in the media.

        The Ministry of Communications retains control over the frequencies of the country insofar as no one else controls them, but their monitoring of frequency use is limited.  There is no institutionalized method of issuing a frequency license, nor do there appear to be procedures governing transmitter ownership.  The Ministry is aware of the need for a frequency regulation framework and is considering an offer from Japan to aid it in the creation of a national spectrum management program.

Degrees of Freedom

        The combination of sharply rising costs, decreasing or disappearing government subsidies, and an audience unwilling or incapable of paying market prices for their newspapers has left media in difficult straits.  One obvious source of new income is the advertising appearing in both the governmental and private press.  However, some newspapers refuse to run ads on moral grounds, arguing that responsibilities to advertisers and to journalistic independence are incompatible.  Even those newspapers which favor ads are generally not able to charge enough for their space to cover the actual costs of production.

        Thus sponsorship has become the only real alternative for the republic’s newspapers.  Not only is this sort of dependence on hidden sponsors bad journalism, but it also polarizes political conflict, driving positions toward extremes.  The effect upon the readership is particularly destructive, for the reliance upon sensationalism has a corrosive effect on public confidence.

        The danger of this legacy is not only that an editorial war might provoke a civil conflict, as readers of different truths square off against each other, but also that the newspapers would exacerbate this tendency by pandering to the interests and prejudices of the groups which they are helping to define.  The tradition of serving a master was very strong in Soviet journalism and remains dominant, so it would be all too easy for newspapers to replace their standard subject of the past, the Party boss, with a self-defined “the people” of the present.

        In Kyrgyzstan’s politics, as in any situation where misconduct is the rule rather than an exception, the question which inevitably arises in attack journalism is: who stands to benefit if the attacks are successful? If press criticism manages to pull down a particular figure, who or what forces will fill the vacancy? In the absence of a developed political culture with well-defined distinctions between public and private behavior, there is little chance that a change of personnel will lead to a change in methods.

       As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, a fundamental question lies in whether the populace is willing or able to pay for the media.  In the Soviet system, television and radio were free (indeed, at one time Soviet citizens had trouble escaping the ubiquitous radio), and newspapers were essentially free.  Audience expectations of content have changed, but the amounts that they are willing to pay have not.

        Most consumers expect media to remain of insignificant cost, particularly since the vast majority see their lives as increasingly impoverished since independence.  But the increase in expense makes this unrealistic, and the advertising base does not yet exist for aids to cover 90 percent of publication costs as in the West.  As a result, media must either be subsidized or sponsored.

        It is difficult to gauge the effect that media have upon the populace.  There is no question, however, that the government believes the media affect public opinion.  This was suggested in autumn 1993, when the administration unsuccessfully tried to introduce censorship in the face of concentrated opposition from the independent media, which resulted in dismissal of several government officials.  It was even more vividly demonstrated in the run-up to Akaev’s referendum in January 1994, when the opposition press was simply shut down, because the republic’s sole (government-owned) printing plant insisted upon three-month pre-payment and also noted that a particularly severe shortage of paper and printing plates meant only the government press could come out with any regularity unless the independent papers were able to provide their own supplies.

        As a result, coverage of the run-up to the referendum and much of the subsequent analysis had a familiar Soviet-style baldness, complete with “spontaneous” telegrams of support from sheep-herders and tractor-drivers.

        Opposition journalists have also written of increasing attempts at subtle and not so subtle intimidation coming from people on the presidential staff; editors have been told that “we will deal with you people,” while others, including Sydykova of Res Publica, were called to the procurator’s office and asked for assistance in following up scandals aired in their papers.

Aid to Central Asia: A Caution

        As part of any program to provide aid, it should be recalled that the persistent shortages of the USSR were not entirely the product of waste and stupidity.  The elites of the USSR were content to maintain a culture of shortages because scarcity creates power for those who are able to control supply of any commodity.  Abundance is inherently democratic, while scarcity breeds power, position, and control.  People in the successor states have learned this lesson well, fueling the tendency toward creation of new monopolies.  Especially in circumstances of accelerating economic decline, the existing power elites in the new states have no interest in permitting increases in supply or access to anything, because this serves only to dilute their power.

        Thus, even in Kyrgyzstan, where the political situation is calmer than Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan and the toleration for anti-governmental views is much greater, there is considerable danger that provision of any material assistance by outside agencies can come to be interpreted as anti-governmental and destabilizing.  There is also a very real danger that resources provided to any country in the region, particularly if they include rare and valuable technical equipment, will quickly pass to the control of one of the hybrid governmental-criminal structures which are proliferating throughout the former USSR.

        Aside from permanent vigilance, there are not many possible solutions to these twin dangers.  Economic collapse, growing Russian aggressiveness (evidenced in elaborate concern for “off-shore” Russians), and the inevitable unwillingness of the existing elites to share power or be replaced, mean that the political spectrum throughout Central Asia, even in the most “democratic” of the states, is being pushed increasingly to extremes.  In practice this means that governments will show ever greater tendencies to define “opposition” as anything less than overt enthusiasm, as Turkmenistan’s Niiazov and Uzbekistan’s Karimov already have done.

        Certainly any attempt to impose an American understanding of diversity of political opinion, of latitude of criticism, or of permissible resistance to existing conditions will, in the Central Asian environment, inevitably look like partisanship, and may appear to be destabilizing.  This does not forbid a focus on local abuses or ills; muckraking at a local level is never as threatening to a regime as are system-wide criticisms.  None of the existing regimes in Central Asia will last forever, so it would be a great mistake for outside aid agencies to become too closely identified with a particular government or leader.

        Equally, the governmental-criminal groups of the ex-USSR everywhere show a growing aggressiveness in their drive to create, maintain and expand monopolies, meaning that in practice almost any donation of value, such as equipment, would easily become a “golden apple of discord” over which groups would struggle, until one of them managed to gain control to the equipment, after which they would deny all others access to it.  Unless donor agencies can devise means to assure broad-spectrum access, donation of small quantities of expensive, highly specialized equipment will have the end effect of benefiting one small segment of society, while only adding to the tools by which all the other segments of a society can be controlled and used for the profit of the very few.

 

Last Updated: 11/20/99

 

1999 Post-Soviet Media Law & Policy Newsletter
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