For the first two years of independence, Kyrgyzstan's newspapers were a remarkable phenomenon, with real political significance and power. Save that Kyrgyzstan's newspapers had not yet developed a Western-style code of journalistic scrupulousness and restraint, it would have been possible to say that the press was beginning to become the fourth estate that the media represent in developed democracies. Through late 1993, Kyrgyzstan's newspapers enjoyed the greatest freedom of publication in any of the Central Asian nations, rivaling the freedom of the post-1991 Moscow press. Although a state secrecy committee had the power to require submission of materials in advance of publication, in fact the newspapers were able to discuss issues of public interest closely and dispassionately. During the gold scandals, for example, the newspapers played a crucial role in airing both opposition attacks on Akayev and his government, and the government's defense against those attacks.
Since 1993, however, the government has moved increasingly to impose control. In August 1993, formal censorship was briefly reimposed, but then a spirited outcry from the press brought a reversal of that move. More subtle methods of censorship were applied in January 1994, during the run-up to the public referendum on Akayev's performance. Although there are several independent or quasi-independent newspapers in the republic, all printing presses remain in government hands, which gives the state the option of simply refusing to print opposition newspapers.
In 1994 the Akayev government stepped up pressure on the local press, closing three newspapers entirely, including the popular Russian-language Svobodnye gory , the official organ of the parliament. Government officials also began to bring suits against newspapers as private individuals, claiming defamation and slander. One such case resulted in a costly judgement against the editor of Delo No , a tabloid-style scandal sheet that is perhaps the most widely read newspaper in the country. In the spring of 1995, Akayev used the same tactic against the editor of Respublika , long one of the most persistent and successful critics of the regime; the president succeeded in getting a judgement that forbids the editor from working for eighteen months.
Beginning in 1994, the Kyrgyz populace began to feel threatened by the government and other forces in the republic. The atmosphere has not been helped by a series of unexplained attacks on journalists, including one popular commentator, a persistent investigator of the gold scandals, who died after being struck on the head. Although the newsman's grave also was desecrated shortly after his burial, no government investigation was conducted. The government has shown reluctance to impose direct Soviet-style censorship, but Akayev warned in January 1995 that the press would be wise to begin practicing self-censorship and to print more positive news.
The economic conditions of journalism prevent any Kyrgyzstani newspaper from being totally free. None of the republic's papers has yet developed a sustaining readership, and because the economy is insufficiently developed to provide advertising revenue, all newspapers must depend on sponsors. For many papers, including Slovo Kyrgyzstana , which has the largest circulation, the sponsor is the government. Others such as Asaba have political sponsors, and at least one is sponsored by Turkish investors. Even the most independent of the papers, Respublika , has been forced to turn to commercial sponsors, which, according to rumor, include Seabeco-Kyrgyzstan, the scandal-tainted intermediary in the Kumtor gold deal.
The most important Russian-language newspapers are Slovo Kyrgyzstana , the official government paper (circulation about 15,000 in 1994); Vechernii Bishkek , a more domestic city paper (reaching 75,000 readers on Fridays); the tabloid scandal sheet Delo No (30,000 copies); Asaba , the organ of the party of the same name (20,000 copies); and Respublika , the most prominent surviving opposition paper (7,000 copies). The major Kyrgyz language newspapers are Kyrgyz guusu and Kut Bilim . A bilingual newspaper, Erkin Too/Svobodnye gory , has appeared, but, unlike its earlier namesake, it is not an opposition paper. One English-language paper, Kyrgyzstan Chronicle , mostly reproduces articles from foreign English-language sources.
The electronic media are unevenly developed in the republic, both because of the physical constraints imposed by the country's mountainous terrain and because of financial difficulties. Resources are concentrated in Bishkek, which is well supplied with television and with radio. Penetration of more remote areas, however, is incomplete.
The government retains ownership of all but one broadcast facility, giving it a strong voice in the development of independent programming. There is at least one independent radio company, called Piramida, and several independent television production companies. In June 1995, the government proposed reinstitution of formal state control over all broadcasting in the republic.
Financial problems have caused Kyrgyzstan to cut back on the number of hours of Russian television that it relays from Moscow, although the Russian government has shown an inclination to work with Kyrgyzstan to keep Russian-language programming on the air in the republic. In the south, most programming originates in Uzbekistan, a situation that tends to exacerbate the north-south split within Kyrgyzstan.
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